A look back at the book, the movie and the soundtrack
In 1981, when Simon & Schuster published Cameron Crowe’s sole novel, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, he turned 24 years old.
Crowe, who graduated from high school at 15, had already been writing professionally for 10 years for The San Diego Door, The Los Angeles Times, and most notably, Rolling Stone, an experience documented in 2000’s Almost Famous, his fourth feature film.
As he recounts in Fast Times’ introduction, reproduced at his website, the book sprung from his frustration at the way the media of the time characterized teenagers as this nameless, faceless horde, but rarely gave them the chance to speak for themselves. As he put it, “Somehow this grand constituency controlled almost every adult’s fate, yet no adult really knew what it was nowadays–to be a kid.”
Crowe could have interviewed a few teenagers, written a magazine article and called it a day. Instead, he decided to move back home, enroll at San Diego’s Clairemont High School (where he had spent an enjoyable summer session during his Catholic school days) and write a book about his experience.
Though it goes unmentioned in his introduction, there were precedents for this kind of thing, like the 1978 NBC series David Cassidy: Man Undercover, in which the former teen idol plays a plainclothes cop who returns to high school to infiltrate a drug ring. If little remembered now, Cassidy received an Emmy nomination when he introduced the character on an episode of Police Story, and though NBC only aired 10 episodes, the same concept would take off in a big way when Fox launched 21 Jump Street in 1987.
VIDEO: David Cassidy — Man Undercover theme
As for Clairemont High, Crowe won over Principal Gray with an anecdote about the time he interviewed Kris Kristofferson. Once Gray got on board, other teachers were let in on the ruse, and Crowe was off to the races. He has claimed that no one suspected the truth, and that he didn’t go out with any students. Though he changed everyone’s names for the book, he also claims that the characters really existed and that the events really happened. Some of these facts have been disputed, by a 1981 San Diego Reader article, for instance, but the book was never marketed as non-fiction, despite the word “true” in the title.
There’s also more dialogue in the book than he could’ve possibly overheard or even heard about, including private conversations between Stacy Hamilton, the 1982 film’s nominal lead (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her best friend, Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates, a teen model just making the transition to acting), and Mark “The Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) and his best friend, Mike Damone (Robert Romanus).
Though Crowe would meet with the real students after graduation to unmask his “Dave Cameron” character and to verify facts and figures, I can only assume he invented most of the dialogue, much of which made its way into the film, and that’s hardly a knock. Dialogue would become a Crowe specialty.
Although I wouldn’t see the movie until it aired on network TV in an edited version, included with the 2021 Criterion Collection edition, I had just started college around the time Fast Times was making the rounds, and quoting Sean Penn’s surfer, Jeff Spicoli, was a bit of a thing, especially words like “gnarly,” “bogus” and “righteous,” and lines like, “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I’m fine.”
Crowe’s book could have marked a career change for the young writer, and it did, but he would go on to become a screenwriter, and then later a director and record label founder, rather than a novelist.
I should interject to note that I didn’t read the book until this year. I was planning to order a copy online until I noticed that: 1) it’s out of print and 2) prices are insane. Beyond the fact that copies are selling for hundreds of dollars at Amazon and on eBay, I found a signed copy listed for a whopping $4,500 (!) at Abe Books. Fortunately, free PDF versions are available from a number of sites, including the Internet Archive.
Until I investigated further, I assumed that this had something to do with Crowe’s publisher, but he’s actually the rights holder. Though he could look into a reprint, he says he prefers it this way, likening the book to a bootleg–something you can get for free or for which you can pay an exorbitant sum. Considering Crowe’s music background, his thinking makes sense…even if I don’t really agree with it.
As for his filmmaking career, it began when Universal Pictures bought the rights to his book, after which he was paired with New York-born director Amy Heckerling who only had one short film, 1977’s Getting It Over With, to her name. The two would hit it off in a big way, and she insisted on his daily set presence.
Not that they had a lot in common. Heckerling was a punk and new wave fan, while Crowe was the rock guy. These gender, geographic and genre differences could have caused problems, but instead they made for a better film, since the actors were cast from the East and West Coasts, the multi-character perspective didn’t favor one gender over another, and the soundtrack split the difference between the music Heckerling liked, the music Crowe liked…and the music their producers insisted they include.
Though Crowe’s book doesn’t tell a music story, like Almost Famous, 1992’s Singles, or his 2016 Showtime series Roadies, it’s filled with the music references one would expect from a narrative about teenagers–particularly one written by a music journalist. Some would make it into the film, some wouldn’t.
Released on the West Coast on August 13, 1982, the movie begins with a mall montage set to the Go-Go’s re-recorded version of 1980 single “We Got the Beat” (Universal, which had little faith in the film, wouldn’t expand to the East Coast until September, when word of mouth was making it a sleeper hit).
In her 1999 commentary track with Crowe on the Criterion edition, Heckerling explains that they were lucky to get the song. The Go-Go’s were just starting to blow up with 1981’s We Got the Beat, which went double platinum in 1982, and the $4.5 million Fast Times wasn’t exactly a big-budget production.
Although I’ve never been fond of montages, it’s a perfect combination of sound and image, since it introduces all of the major characters and their part-time and freelance gigs, an aspect of their lives that takes precedence in the film over home and school. Sadly, “We Got the Beat” wouldn’t make it on to the Elektra soundtrack, though the Go-Go’s are represented by “Speeding” from 1982’s Vacation.
VIDEO: Fast Times opening scene
The film ends with a matching montage in which workers close down the mall for the night set to “Goodbye Goodbye” from Oingo Boingo featuring Heckerling’s friend Danny Elfman, who would become better known as a composer once he joined forces with Tim Burton for 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The four-time nominee is one of several participants in the film who would go on to win Academy Awards or to receive nominations, including Crowe, Penn, Leigh, Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage.
Whitaker, in his feature-film debut, plays football player Charles Jefferson, while Cage, then billed as Nicolas Coppola, plays one of the fast food buds who congregate around Stacy’s brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), head fry cook at All-American Burgers (Carl’s Jr. in the book). Heckerling admits, in her commentary, that she wanted to cast Cage as Brad, except he was 17, so he couldn’t work full days, and she feared that his demeanor was too “down” to contrast with Leigh, who was also on the down side.
Other songs that didn’t make it onto the soundtrack include Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” Darlene Love’s “Winter Wonderland,” Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo.” If you’ve seen the film–and if you’ve gotten this far you probably have–then you’ll know why the soundtrack is such a poor representation of the film, since Zeppelin and The Cars play roles in a couple of memorable moments.
The first comes from the book when Damone gives the Rat advice about girls. “This is most important,” he stresses. “When you get down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.”
VIDEO: Mike Damone’s Five Point Plan
This presented a challenge for the filmmakers as Zeppelin wasn’t in the habit of making their music available for movies in the 1980s, so Crowe used his connections, but due to a “publishing snafu,” they could only access post-Houses of the Holy material. They chose “Kashmir” off 1975’s Physical Graffiti, which the Rat plays on his sister’s car stereo while driving Stacy to a German restaurant for their first date (in the book, a band plays the song at senior prom, along with the Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady”).
In his commentary, Crowe says he’s tired of complaints that “Kashmir” doesn’t appear on Led Zeppelin IV. That’s the point: the Rat isn’t a player; big surprise that he would get that kind of detail wrong.
Somewhat of a side note, but even by the 1990s, Zeppelin wasn’t in the habit of making their music available for movies. When I caught the Seattle premiere of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused in 1993, he said he did what he could to get ahold of the Zeppelin song after which he had titled his film, but it proved an impossible task. To quote Crowe, “Nobody gets Led Zeppelin.” Oddly, this worked to Linklater’s advantage, because the 1976-set story opens with Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” which proved as rousing of an introduction to his high school film as “We Got the Beat” would prove for Fast Times.
The other memorable Fast Times moment, which also comes from the book, became its defining sequence as Brad comes home from work to find Stacy in the backyard pool with Linda, the Rat and Damone. While watching from the bathroom, he daydreams that Linda, who has just emerged from the water, walks towards him in slow motion to the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo.” After purring, “Hi Brad. You know how cute I always thought you were,” she removes her red bikini top–at which point the real Linda walks in on Brad pleasuring himself. In the film, Phoebe Cates makes a “Yikes!” face. It wasn’t completely acting, since Judge Reinhold turned to face her while wielding a surprise–an oversized rubber dildo.
As for the book, other acts that didn’t make it on to the soundtrack include AC/DC, Pat Benatar, Ritchie Blackmore, Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Ted Nugent, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend, and Van Halen, but that doesn’t mean that some didn’t make it into the film.
Pat Benatar shows up by way of three female lookalikes, though the book’s lookalikes are boys dressed as Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander. Damone, a scalper like the book’s Randy Eddo, also tries to sell a Cheap Trick ticket to a fellow student by serenading her with a terrible acapella rendition of “Surrender.”
Though Costello is notable by his audio absence, Crowe mentions the album flats on the Rat’s bedroom wall in the book. In the film, flats for Costello’s Trust and Taking Liberties and a 1980 Annie Liebovitz portrait for Rolling Stone of Pete Townsend with a bloody hand appear instead on Damone’s wall.
If Van Halen didn’t make it into the film, the band is represented by the tickets Damone scalps at the mall, and by a pre-end credits intertitle stating that Spicoli got the band to play his birthday party. Sammy Hagar, who would join Van Halen three years later, also performs one of the “Fast Times” themes, while Billy Squier and Jimmy Buffet perform the others. Notably, none of them appear in Crowe’s book.
VIDEO: Spicoli’s Surfer Dream
The Stones found their way into the film by the Tattoo You poster on Damone’s wall, and Mick Jagger found his way in by a story Spicoli shares with his buds, played in the film by a long-haired Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards, about the time he ended up backstage at a Stones concert, got high with Jagger–“a regular dude!”–and left with a guitar pick as a souvenir (this scene, deleted from the theatrical version, appears in the TV edit). In a great act of beneficence, he gifts it to Stoltz, because he “showed interest.”
And if Fleetwood Mac didn’t make it into the film, Stevie Nicks did with “Sleeping Angel,” a track recorded during the sessions for 1981’s Bella Donna that wouldn’t appear on one of her albums until 1998’s Enchanted box set. Since Nicks seems like a pretty big get, I checked Crowe’s website to see how often he had written about Fleetwood Mac; several times, as it turns out, including a 1976 interview for The Los Angeles Times and a 1977 cover story for Rolling Stone. That can’t have hurt.
I can’t explain how every other act ended up on the album, but there are clues in the fact that Irving Azoff co-produced both film and soundtrack. Azoff has worn numerous hats in the industry, but one constant has been his association with the Eagles who are represented by four members: Don Henley (“Love Rules”), Joe Walsh (“Waffle Stomp”), Timothy B. Schmit (“So Much in Love”), and Don Felder (“Never Surrender”). As with Hagar, Squier, and Buffet, Crowe doesn’t mention any of them in his book.
Though Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, and Poco don’t appear in it either, he’s also championed them in print, so that may have affected their inclusion. Browne, who wrote “Somebody’s Baby” for the film, had his last top 10 hit with the song. Most of the other acts, like Donna Summer and Louise Goffin (the daughter of Carole King and Gerry Goffin), were signed to Elektra or Geffen, labels with which Azoff had a relationship (he compiled the soundtrack with managerial associates Bob Destocki and Howard Kaufman). As Heckerling sighs in her commentary, “I had to use a lot of music that I totally, totally hated.”
Compared to the book and the film, the soundtrack just doesn’t measure up, and I’m not alone in that thinking, since it peaked at #54 on the Billboard Hot 100. The film, on the other hand, would earn six times its budget, making it a lower-rung entry on the year’s top 30, a fraction of Porky’s $105M+ haul, but one of these 1982 teen sex comedies was inducted into the National Film Registry and the other wasn’t.
That success would launch the careers of most everyone involved, like Crowe and Heckerling, who would go on to bigger-budget projects, though Fast Times marks their only film to merit the Criterion treatment. I could make a case for Almost Famous and Heckerling’s Clueless, her other great high school comedy, as Criterion-worthy, but at least they’re readily available on Blu-ray, streaming, and even 4K UHD.
As someone who attended high school in the 1980s, the book, the film, and the soundtrack ring truer to me than most others made or set in the era. Despite my complaints, we weren’t all listening to punk, new wave, and hip-hop, as much as recent TV shows and movies about that time would suggest. Some of the cooler kids, sure, but for those of us stuck in the sticks or remote locations, like Anchorage, AK, we did what we could with what he had, and some of my classmates were definitely listening to the Eagles, like Tom Fink (yes, his real name) who sang “Desperado” at a West Anchorage High School talent show.
In other cases, our parents were the ones listening to this stuff—I remember Dad playing the hell out of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty–which leads me to believe that Azoff and Linton were hoping to attract as many Boomers as they could, which isn’t as crazy as it sounds, since the film was rated R, meaning that kids under 17 couldn’t attend without a parent or guardian…though I’m sure many did.
If I’ve mentioned every music reference in the book, I haven’t mentioned every music reference in the film. The t-shirts, for instance, include Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen (whose sister, Pamela, plays a cheerleader). Every time I watch it, I notice something new, one of many reasons it holds up to a re-watch.
All told, it isn’t a perfect film, and it didn’t turn out exactly as its makers intended–both the director’s cut and the TV edit include material deleted from the theatrical version–but Fast Times at Ridgemont High provided a more empathetic depiction of teenagers than most films to date. Twenty-two-year old Cameron Crowe’s wish, when he set out to write the book, had come true: he had given The Kids a voice.
VIDEO: Fast Times trailer
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