More than 30 years ago, Dave Cameron walked through the halls of Clairemont High School in San Diego. He had a colorful collection of friends: a middle-class, business-oriented guy, his sexually naive sister, her sophisticated best friend, the jock and nerd duo that lusted after the girls and a colorful surfer dude. What none of them knew at the time was that Dave Cameron wasn’t really a high school student. He was 22, and had already graduated high school seven years prior, at the age of 15. In the time since, he wasn’t known as Dave Cameron – but Cameron Crowe, a Rolling Stone writer and editor who interviewed The Allman Brothers Band, Yes, Eagles, Led Zeppelin and others, all before he could legally drink.
The story of Cameron Crowe’s ascendance is insanely captivating – one needs no further proof than his roman a clef film Almost Famous (2001) – but this chapter of his life, after Rolling Stone and before his foray into film, was just as intriguing. It kind of had to be; Simon & Schuster already had the rights to publish his accounts of what he saw in high school. That account was released in 1981 under the title Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story. The book hadn’t even been published when Universal snatched up the film rights. The film, released a year later, became a critical and cultural touchstone for its stellar cast and flawless soundtrack.
With ’80s nostalgia still in full gear thanks to movies like this week’s Take Me Home Tonight, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the magic of Fast Times after the jump.
A film is nothing without good source material and a competent director to put it all together. Crowe ably adapted his own book for the screen, which was no easy task. Fast Times doesn’t really have a central plot; it’s set up as vignettes of these teenagers’ lives over the course of a school year. But it never loses steam, and that’s partially thanks to the efforts of director Amy Heckerling, in her directorial debut (she has since gone on to direct blockbusters such as Look Who’s Talking and ’90s teen-zeitgeist movie Clueless).
But most will point out the Herculean cast as the biggest gun in the film’s arsenal. Each of the principal cast members – Judge Reinhold as self-assured “single, successful guy” Brad Hamilton, Jennifer Jason Leigh as his virginal sister Stacy, Phoebe Cates as her sexpot friend Linda, Tony-winning Brian Backer as Stacy’s crush Mark Ratner (the nerdy fellow in the book who was actually based on Andy Rathbone, later a successful author of the For Dummies book series) – disappeared into their roles. There’s a host of great side roles, too, from idiosyncratic teachers (Ray Walston and character actor Vincent Schiavelli) to Ridgemont students (Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Coppola – who later changed his surname to Cage).
But the breakout star was far and away Mr. Sean Penn, who methodically disappeared into his role as perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli. His portrayal – laid back, with a tone of constant, blown-mind amusement – was nothing short of iconic, and his fashion sense (particularly the two-toned Vans skate shoes, which put the company on the map) was wildly influential as well. Watching Penn as Spicoli, it’s really no surprise the guy was destined for two Oscars.
Like all good flicks of the ’80s, Fast Times was bolstered by a thoroughly divine soundtrack that put plenty of its contemporaries to shame, not only in terms of quality but quantity. The album was spread over two LPs upon its original release – an hour or so altogether – and straddled a pretty impressive line between up-and-comers and established rockers. Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby,” written by Danny Kortchmar, is the single that everyone remembers – going to No. 7 on the Billboard charts – but did you know the album also boasted a song by Louise Goffin, the daughter of Gerry Goffin and Carole King? Appearances by no less than four Eagles? (Irving Azoff produced both the film and its soundtrack, so this isn’t all that big a surprise.) Even more astounding are some of the well-known tunes left off the record; the first two tracks heard in the movie are “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s (whose “Speeding,” later used as a B-side, appeared on the album) and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.” (We can’t forget The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo,” either, which backed the famous fantasy scene with Phoebe Cates, a red bikini and an overactive imagination.)
Fast Times was an early benchmark of ’80s youth culture and Cameron Crowe’s still-thriving career (he’s releasing documentaries on Elton John & Leon Russell and Pearl Jam this year), and it’s yet another stunning reminder of the transformative power of music in the movies.
Various Artists, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Music from the Motion Picture (Full Moon/Asylum 60158-1, 1982)
- Somebody’s Baby – Jackson Browne
- Waffle Stomp – Joe Walsh
- Love Rules – Don Henley
- Uptown Boys – Louise Goffin
- So Much in Love – Timothy B. Schmit
- Raised on the Radio – The Ravyns
- The Look in Your Eyes – Gerard McMahon
- Speeding – The Go-Go’s
- Don’t Be Lonely – Quarterflash
- Never Surrender – Don Felder
- Fast Times (The Best Years of Our Lives) – Billy Squier
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High – Sammy Hagar
- I Don’t Know (Spicoli’s Theme) – Jimmy Buffett
- Love is the Reason – Graham Nash
- I’ll Leave It Up to You – Poco
- Highway Runner – Donna Summer
- Sleeping Angel – Stevie Nicks
- She’s My Baby (and She’s Outta Control) – Palmer/Jost
- Goodbye, Goodbye – Oingo Boingo