Facing the Music: The Time-Traveling Adventures of Bill & Ted and Back to the Future

In 1989, movie audiences were treated to one of the best comedies of the 80s when Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure premiered in theaters. Keanu Reeves owes much of his early success as a star to the time-traveling adventures of the Wyld Stallyns, so much so that he agreed to do a sequel, Bill and Ted Face the Music, decades later. Of course, Bill and Ted weren’t the only people to take a trip through time back in the day. The 80s was also the decade Marty McFly and Doc Brown went Back to the Future in their DeLorean time machine to set right what once went wrong. While you wait for the release of the latest Bill and Ted adventure, you can enjoy both time travel series. As our collection becomes available to customers once more, take a trip in time with us to revisit these classic comedy hits.

Party On, Dudes! The Making of an Excellent Adventure

The road to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure began with a spec script written in 1987. The original concept was entitled Bill & Ted’s Time Van, and the character of Rufus was written as a 28-year-old high school sophomore with a dog sidekick. Writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson decided that the concept of having Bill (Alex) & Ted (Keanu) travel through time in a 1969 Chevy van was too similar to the concept of Back to the Future and decided to replace it with a phone booth. The director and writers had great difficulty settling on which way to take the Rufus character, eventually deciding on seasoned comedian George Carlin well into the film’s shoot.

Getting cast as Bill and Ted was a huge challenge for Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves; they had to compete with over 200 other actors, including Sean Penn and Brendan Fraser. Reeves and Winter met while rehearsing for their auditions and developed a rapport very quickly. Reeves and Winter read both for Bill and Ted in auditions, but Reeves had developed such a fixation on getting Bill that he was sad when he realized he was cast as Ted instead. This led to the longstanding “Keanu was Bill and Alex was Ted” urban legend

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was filmed in 1987, mostly in the cities of Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona. You can still see some of the scenery from the film in those cities, including the Circle K where Bill and Ted’s time quest started from, the water park Napoleon visited, and the mural in the film’s San Dimas High School (Coronado High School in real life). Director Stephen Herek completed the filming quite rapidly, taking only ten weeks, but challenges emerged once the shoot was complete. The studio producing the film, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt in late 1987, ruining the initial plan for a 1988 release for Bill & Ted. Eventually Orion Pictures obtained the rights to Herek’s mostly finished film, but there was still one more problem. The film’s original ending, in which Bill and Ted simply delivered their report in a regular classroom and then went to the prom, was considered dull and low-key by Herek. A new ending was devised with Bill and Ted delivering their report in a grand auditorium, with an elaborate sound and light show to make the report much more dramatic. With Rufus telling the audience that “they do get better” as the Wyld Stallyns played at the movie’s end, a comedy that would endure the test of time was born.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads: The Back to the Future Movies

Another memorable 1980s comedy series revolving around time travel is the Back to the Future trilogy. The first movie, Back to the Future, was released in 1985 and was both a major boost to Michael J. Fox’s career and established Robert Zemekis as an A-List director. Getting the film made proved to be quite a challenge for Zemekis and writer Bob Gale, though. The script was initially pitched to several studios, including Columbia, but was rejected for not being raunchy enough in comparison to other teen comedies of the time. Disney also turned down the script for being too risqué for its standards, as Disney rarely released anything over a G rating at the time. The script was eventually picked up by Universal, but studio executive Sid Sheinberg attempted to make numerous alterations to the concept once it had been greenlit, including changing the title to Space Man From Pluto. Producer Steven Spielberg was able to salvage the situation by claiming he thought the “joke title” was hilarious; Sheinberg was so embarrassed that he allowed the movie to retain the Back to the Future title. 

Casting the right actors as Marty and Doc Brown was essential to the movie’s success, but this also proved challenging. Michael J. Fox was cast as Marty McFly once the movie had already begun production. Eric Stoltz was the original Marty and was fired after six weeks of shooting because he played the role with too much brooding intensity for a comedic performance. Much of the footage shot while Stoltz was Marty was still used in the finished film, but fans have been trying to find shots that had accidentally left “the original Marty” in the film for decades.

Christopher Lloyd was not the first choice to play Doc Brown either; he was only cast after John Lithgow became unavailable. Once Fox and Lloyd met on set, they immediately connected, playing off each other’s strengths and improvising aspects of their performances as Marty and Doc. Doc’s frizzy hair and unique pronunciations (including “jigawatts”) were improvised by Lloyd, and Fox connected so strongly with the role of Marty that he felt he could play him while asleep. The success of Back to the Future wasn’t just about its clever script or its snazzy DeLorean; it was truly rooted in Doc Brown and Marty and McFly and the actors who played them.

Several sequels were made for Back to the Future. In 1989, Back to the Future Part II was released, with Back to the Future Part III coming out the following year. The two sequels were shot back-to-back, a rare production decision for 1980s films that was a sign that Universal viewed both the sequels as sure successes. For Part II, Zemekis’ director of photography, Dean Cundey, developed a new computerized camera dolly called “VistaGlide” that allowed the same actor to portray multiple characters that could interact in one shot. This technology proved essential to the film’s script, which had Marty interact with an earlier version of himself as he was sent back to 1955 once more in the film’s climax. Part III’s story was a simpler journey back to the Old West of 1885, with no crossing of the first film’s trip. The VistaGlide camera proved itself useful once more, in scenes where Marty interacted with his ancestor, Seamus McFly; Fox was able to play both characters and interact with himself seamlessly. 

Back to the Future Part III is frequently considered the final film in the series, but there was one more sequel produced, Back to the Future: The Ride. The Ride was a short film synced with a motion simulator “car” designed to look like Doc’s DeLorean. Riders would finally get to see Doc’s positive influence on the timeline, as The Ride’s building and opening vignette featuring Lloyd were designed as the “Doc Brown Institute of Future Technology.” Things would quickly go bad for Doc once more, as Biff Tannen would return and steal a DeLorean, forcing the riders to give chase through the present day of 1991, the future of 2015, and even the distant past of the late Cretaceous. Though a fourth theatrical film was never produced, The Ride was an excellent send-off for the series and was enjoyed by fans until it was removed from Universal Theme parks in 2007. Even though The Ride is gone now, the video segments are still available to view for anyone looking for one last adventure with Doc Brown.   

Are We Just Dust in the Wind, Dude? Bill and Ted’s Return

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was a major financial success, and Orion was eager to produce a sequel. In 1991, the follow-up, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was released. The sequel saw Bill and Ted confronting not just time, but Death itself as they traveled through Heaven and Hell to find a way to stop evil robot duplicates of themselves from ruining the reputation of the Wyld Stallyns. In the film’s most memorable and funny scene, they defeat Death by challenging him to a Twister game and winning. Like Excellent Adventure, Bogus Journey had a strong audience response and cult following, leaving many fans hoping for another sequel.

But sadly, another movie was not in the cards for decades. There was a short-lived animated series that aired for two years, but Winter, Reeve,s and Carlin only reprised their roles in the first 13 episodes of it before being replaced by cheaper voice actors. As Reeves’ career took off, the prospect of another Bill and Ted movie became increasingly remote, and the popularity of the movies was maintained by fans and cable TV airings rather than new content. The closest fans got to a new Bill & Ted movie for years was the Excellent Halloween Adventure stage show that Universal Studios put on in late October since 1992, but even it was finally cancelled in 2017. 

In 2018, just when it seemed like Bill & Ted would never be seen again, production on the third movie began on May 8, 2018. The trailer was released in June 2020, promising an adventure where Bill & Ted will time travel once more, as well as the return of Death from the second movie. They face a quest to get out of their midlife funk and try to write the hit song that will finally save the world and rewrite the future for the better. What will they do to finally make the hit that will define the Wyld Stallyns, and how has San Dimas changed in the decades since we last saw them? As you wait for the answers to these questions, know that CRRL is the place for all your time travel needs!