Fast Times at Ridgemont High Review

In the late Seventies, Cameron Crowe (who had been a rock journalist, writing for Rolling Stone amongst others) took advantage of his youthful appearance and went back to high school for a year, incognito. The result was his book Fast Times at Ridgemont High, widely hailed as one of the funniest, and most accurate, of its type. Naturally, when the film rights were sold, Crowe got to write the screenplay, his first screen credit. The director was another first-timer, Amy Heckerling.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (released in UK cinemas as simply Fast Times though subsequent releases, including this DVD, have reverted to the full title) is an ensemble piece. Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Diane (Phoebe Cates) work as fast-food waitresses in the local mall, and Diane is Stacy’s guide through the dangerous territory of sex and The First Time. Brad (Judge Reinhold), Stacy’s brother, works at a burger joint in the same mall and has more than a crush on Diane. Then there’s Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), surfer dude incarnate, with his two “buds” (Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz) in tow, and the despair of his teacher Mr Hand (Ray Walston).

Made on a low budget, Fast Times didn’t exactly set the box office alight on its release. This was a teen movie with a MPAA R rating (and nearly an X rating, of which more later), which meant that much of its likely audience wouldn’t be able to see it. This was a comedy that included in its plot such elements as teenage sex, drugs, abortion, and not to mention a memorable masturbation scene. A third strike against it from a marketing point of view was a cast full of unknowns: the biggest name, then, was Ray Walston, best known for the stage and screen musical Damn Yankees. However, the film soon picked up a cult following, partly due to the fact that many of those unknowns became considerably better known. In addition to those I’ve mentioned above, there are early roles for Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage (then billed as Nicolas Coppola). The film found a large audience on video – as Heckerling says in the featurette, all rental copies exhibit serious tracking problems during Phoebe Cates’s now-famous topless scene, due to excessive use of the pause button!

All the leading cast are excellent: indeed, this film shows that Jennifer Jason Leigh can be just as good in a relatively “normal” role rather than the more extreme parts she’s since played. If there’s a standout, it’s Sean Penn. Two decades of imitation – Spicoli is a clear first cousin of Bill and Ted, for example – have made it harder to appreciate how good Penn is in this role, and as with Leigh it’s good to see him play comedy rather than the intense drama he’s most often associated with. Back in the 1980s Sean Penn was best known for his marriage to a certain pop star and for picking fights with paparazzi, which often obscured his acting talent. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a witness for the defence.

As for those behind the camera, I’ll say more about Crowe in reviews of the films he went on to direct as well as write. Fast Times launched Amy Heckerling on a highly uneven career, with the good films (this one and the overrated Clueless) counterbalanced by utter turkeys like Look Who’s Talking Too and National Lampoon’s European Vacation, with quite a lot of mediocre material in between. I’ve never especially rated her as a director, and watching Fast Times again confirms why. Her best films are so because of the strength of the original material. She has little in the way of visual flair, and little ability for shaping a film: Fast Times is episodic to begin with, but Heckerling’s direction gives it a stop-go rhythm, with scenes stopping rather than ending or flowing into one another. On the other hand, she does show ability with actors, and deserves credit for not flinching from potentially risky material. She was criticised for showing Leigh completely nude and Cates topless, but keeping the male cast’s clothes on. However, this was unfair: in the sex scene between Leigh and Richard Romanus, Heckerling shot full-frontal footage of the scene, intending to show how scary an early sexual experience can be. Faced with an X rating, Heckerling was forced to cut the scene, and her intention was lost. Male nudity is “more aggressive”, apparently. The soundtrack is a catalogue of early 80s pop/rock, including Jackson Browne, the Go-Go’s, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Oingo Boingo, Donna Summer and Joe Walsh – plus a rare appearance on a soundtrack by Led Zeppelin, licenced as a favour to Crowe for his journalistic coverage. (On the commentary, Crowe says yes he knows that “Kashmir” isn’t on Led Zeppelin 4, so don’t write to him to point out his mistake.)

Columbia TriStar have given Fast Times an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio, 1.85:1. The picture quality is certainly very serviceable, though a little on the soft side, with some minor speckles and scratches here and there. It certainly isn’t reference quality as the colours are rather dull (reds especially), but that’s more to do with the original materials and their low-budget origins.

Back in 1982, Dolby Stereo soundtracks were the exception rather than the rule, especially for “small” films such as this. This DVD retains the original mono mix, which is competent enough, without being very spectacular. This is a fairly dialogue-heavy film, and that comes across well enough, though the lack of dynamic range means that the music doesn’t sound as good as it might. There are eighteen chapter stops.

Given the film’s cult status, it’s to Columbia’s credit that they’ve provided a good set of extras with this release, though it stops short of a full-blown “special edition”. First off is a very engaging commentary featuring Heckerling and Crowe. It’s clear from the outset how much a rapport these two have, as they tell you pretty much all you’ll need to know about how the film was made, where the cast came from, the censorship problems I’ve mentioned above, and more. It’s clear they could go on talking all night, and indeed they don’t stop with the end credits but continue for another eight minutes. Towards the end, Crowe jokes that they could reunite to discuss another movie (“Tomorrow, Amy and Cameron discuss A Clockwork Orange") and it may be worth some enterprising DVD producer taking them up on that.

Next up is a 39-minute featurette, “Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. This was produced by Universal in 1999, which was game of them, as one of the film’s producers openly accuses them of trying to bury the film when it was clear it wasn’t the lightweight teen sex comedy they were expecting. This documentary covers all the usual bases, with interview input from most of the people involved, Crowe, Leigh and Cates being the most notable absentees.

In the commentary, Crowe refers to some deleted scenes, some of which (extra footage of Sean Penn, mostly) turned up in the TV version of the film – however, this isn’t included on this DVD. Also, it would have been interesting to see the original version of the Leigh/Romanus sex scene, presuming it still exists. This wouldn’t have troubled the BBFC, considering that Fast Times has always been over-eighteens-only in the UK.

The remaining extras are fairly routine. There’s a full-frame trailer (which runs 1:35), which understandably tries to sell the film as a comedy without its darker aspects. “Music highlights” is a set of links to the points in the film where particular songs are played. “Hangouts of Ridgemont High” is a sketch map of the film’s locations. The production notes and cast/crew filmographies are standard-issue. To play the Easter eggs, highlight the footprints at the top or bottom right of the "Play Movie", "Language Selection" or “Bonus Materials” menus, and you’ll get a page of links to four “classic quotes” (different ones for each).

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a good film though not a great one, with a strong cast, many of whom went on to better things. Cultists will no doubt up my rating a point or two, and will be glad that the film has been given a worthwhile DVD release.

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