Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Anyone who's seen Almost Famous (2000) already knows Cameron Crowe's backstory. The semi-autobiographical Almost Famous, written and directed by Crowe, spins the seemingly fantastic tale of a 15-year old rock journalist -- inspired by Crowe's own teen years. When he was just 16, Crowe wrote his first cover story for Rolling Stone and soon quit high school to go on the road, interviewing bands and musicians the likes of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. At 22, Crowe decided to go back to high school - this time as a journalist. He spent the 1979-80 school year posing as a student at a San Diego high school. Crowe's experiences became the novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High (with names changed to protect the innocent, though Crowe claims "all the incidents are true"). Oddly, Crowe's main discovery about his classmates was how conservative they were. "They're Reagan children," he commented. "It's scary." Crowe was called on to adapt his own work for the screen - unusual for a first time writer - and by age 24 he had a published novel and a produced screenplay to his credit.
Crowe followed Fast Times (and made his directorial debut) with another teen classic Say Anything (1989) and then turned out a little something for the twentysomething GenXers with Singles (1992). But his biggest success came in 1996 with Jerry Maguire. The Tom Cruise sports agent comedy-drama was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for Crowe's original screenplay. But Crowe would have to wait a few years to finally win an Oscar®. The award for Best Screenplay came in 2000 for Almost Famous.
Crowe wasn't the only film novice at work on Fast Times. It was also director Amy Heckerling's first time out of the gate. She would go on to direct comedies like National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985) and Look Who's Talking(1989), but Heckerling's most notable post-Fast Times success came with another teen hit -- Clueless (1995). Fast Times also featured the work of some talented and relatively unknown young actors. Sean Penn had only Taps (1981) and some TV work to his credit before the film. And likewise, Jennifer Jason Leigh had appeared mainly in TV movies. Fast Times would be a breakthrough film for both stars. Other early performances featured in the film come from actor-director Forest Whitaker and Eric Stoltz. There's also a young Nicolas Cage, credited for the only time as Nicolas Coppola.
Reviews for Fast Times were mixed, though most critics noted it was a grade above typical teen sex romps. Pauline Kael for The New Yorker remarked, "I was surprised at how not-bad it is." Newsweek perhaps put it best, saying, "Fast Times...restores to kids their divine right to be silly, fumbling creatures with their own...dignity."
Producer: Irving Azoff, C.O. Erickson, Art Linson
Director: Amy Heckerling
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Film Editing: Eric Jenkins
Art Direction: Dan Lomino
Music: Joe Walsh
Cast: Sean Penn (Jeff Spicoli), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Stacy Hamilton), Judge Reinhold (Brad Hamilton), Robert Romanus (Mike Damone), Brian Backer (Mark Ratner), Phoebe Cates (Linda Barrett).
by Stephanie Thames