If you grew up in the early 1980s, then 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' was a rite of passage. Like all classic films about growing up, such as 'Rebel Without a Cause,' 'The Graduate,' 'American Graffiti' and 'The Breakfast Club,' it defined an era and remains an indelible artifact of its time. It created now-classic character archetypes -- who can forget Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli, the ultimate stoned-out surfer dude? -- and was pitch-perfect in capturing the way real teenagers talked, the clothes they wore and the kind of music they listened to. And twenty-five years on, it still holds up as a highly entertaining, perceptive comedy, one that new generations of teenagers continue to rediscover on video and cable.
'Fast Times' began life as an article that a young music journalist named Cameron Crowe was contracted to write for Rolling Stone magazine. Infiltrating an average American high school in Ridgemont, Illinois, the material he collected over the course of a year ended up being so strong he turned it into a book instead. That formed the basis for the movie, directed by future 'Clueless' helmer Amy Heckerling. Though events are distilled considerably from the novel, Crowe's screenplay retains its basic characters and relationships, which gives it a leg up on most of its fellow teen films, such as 'American Graffiti' and 'Dazed & Confused.' Rather than a narrative that meanders, 'Fast Times' takes recognizable teen archetypes and gives each a nice little emotional arc. No, nothing that happens in 'Fast Times' is, in hindsight, all that dramatic, but then that's the beauty of high school -- at the time a pimple seems of monumental importance. All 'Fast Times' does is observe the mundane realities of being a teenager with great sensitivity and humor, which is why it remains so universal and resonant.
'Fast Times' also launched the careers of many a major star, including Penn, Nicolas Cage, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Phoebe Cates and Judge Reinhold, as well as Crowe and Heckerling. Yet aside from Penn, none of the performances are larger-than-life. No one is out to have their big scene or win an Academy Award. Natural, fresh-faced and appealing, the cast often underplay their scenes, and it's a refreshing change from many of today's up-and-coming actors who often look they are posing for a fashion spread on the WB, all smug smirks and false irony.
Watching 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' again on HD DVD for this review -- it has been several years since I've seen the film -- I was also reminded how shocking it once seemed. Though topics such as promiscuous teenage sex, abortion and positive drug use are commonplace today even on the most innocuous TV show, that's due in large part to movies like 'Fast Times.' Though a bit raunchy at times, this is no 'Porkys.' The sensitivity of Heckerling and Crowe is obvious -- they simply depict the issues that teens of 1982 faced on a daily basis, and if the film is not always upbeat, it is also never exploitative or titillating. I expect 'Fast Times' won't date anytime soon -- or at least as long as teenagers still have to be teenagers. Which will likely be forever.
'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' is another HD DVD/DVD combo release from Universal, here a HD-15/DVD-9 double-sided disc. However, as there are no extra features at all on the HD side, nor much in the way of extensive soundtrack options, the reduced disc space is not a huge drawback. In fact, 'Fast Times' looks much better than I expected. No, it is not absolutely fantastic, but it's certainly a sharp presentation for a film now twenty-five years old.
The source print is in healthy shape. Grain is readily apparent throughout if unobtrusive, and consistent aside from optical shots (namely the opening credits) which look slightly dirtier. There are also a few minor instances of hair-thin scratches and dropouts, but again it is nothing excessive. More problematic, however, are that colors appear too saturated and artificial. The image looks vibrant -- I certainly don't remember 'Fast Times' looking anything but drab on video prior -- but colors sometimes smear and suffer from chroma noise. Reds in particular are distracting, and any solid areas of color tend to look fuzzy. Fleshtones, too, tend to veer towards the red end of the scale at time, though generally they remain a proper shade of orange.
Otherwise, the rest of the transfer is surprisingly good. Blacks are solid throughout and contrast relatively smooth across the entire grayscale. Shadow delineation is a bit weak, but nothing out of the ordinary for a film of this vintage. Depth is better than I anticipated -- the image can look surprisingly three-dimensional, especially brightly-lit scenes, which often boast noticeable fine detail even in far-away background shots. Compression artifacts are also not a problem, as I noticed no real posterization or pixelation. Aside from the wonky colors, I was generally impressed with 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' on HD DVD.
'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' gets a new Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (encoded at a healthy 1.5mbps) on HD DVD, but it really doesn't offer much improvement. Quite frankly, 'Fast Times' was a low-budget teen comedy with sound design almost completely lacking in any sort of envelopment. And there is only so much you can do with elements twenty-five years old, so don't expect this soundtrack to rock your world.
The mix is almost entirely front heavy. Even stereo effects are minimal, with only the film's many '80s-era rock and pop songs benefiting from any kind of noticeable separation. In fact, aside from the music I counted probably half a dozen discrete effects total in the surrounds -- usually a bit of bleed such as the sound of a car engine, or some minor crowd noise in the mall scenes. And that's it. Don't expect much in the way of dynamic range, either, with a somewhat flat sound and anemic low bass.
Dialogue is nicely reproduced throughout the film, however, and far superior to all those old crappy videotapes and cable airings I used to watch as a kid. Sometimes ADR is fairly obvious, but the tonal quality of the soundtrack is consistent and always clear.
'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' finally got the special edition treatment on DVD back in 1999, much to the delight of the film's longtime fans. And if not as extensive as some of Universal's other collector's editions, it was still a nice package of extras that reunited many of the film's key cast and crew. (Note that all of the extras are included only on the standard DVD side of this HD DVD/DVD combo disc -- even the audio commentary -- which is quite annoying. Please, stop with these combos already!)
First up is a screen-specific audio commentary with director Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe. It's a very entertaining listen. As you 'Fast Times' scholars know, Crowe was originally hired to write an article on the state of the American high schooler, circa 1980, for Rolling Stone magazine. That became the book 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,' then the movie. Crowe touches upon that experience often, and proved instrumental to helping Heckerling in casting, directing and editing the film. Even if you are a not a huge fan of the film this track is well worth a listen, as Crowe's journey is fascinating in and of itself. (Note an oddity about the commentary: on the HD DVD side, the track is edited at the end to fade out after the credits. However, on the DVD side, Heckerling and Crowe talk for a good seven or eight additional minutes. So if you really want to hear the full commentary, listen to it on the DVD side of the disc.)
Crowe and Heckerling return again in the 30-minute, awkwardly-titled documentary
"Reliving Our 'Fast Times At Ridgemont High.'" They are joined by
quite an impressive cast list, including Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Eric Stolz,
Brian Backer and Richard Romanus. It is always a bit of a shock to see old friends
you grew up with today, and all have fairly fond memories of working on the
film. My only caveats are the almost complete lack of any behind-the-scenes
production footage or audition material, as well as the absence of Jennifer
Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates. Who knows why they declined to participate, but
it's a shame nonetheless as the doc is a bit lacking without them.
Rounding out the extras is "The Hangouts Of Ridgemont High," an interactive video map of the fictional Ridgemont. Unfortunately, it offers no new behind-the-scenes material, just short little clips of scenes featuring the film's most-remembered locations. Also included are some production notes and the film's theatrical trailer.
Though this is a pretty good package of extras, I do still have one major gripe. None of the deleted scenes that routinely pop up in the television edits of the film are included, an omission I wanted to be rectified with this HD DVD. I've read an interview with director Amy Heckerling where she made it clear she never liked the scenes, but since they are so commonplace on TV it seems odd not to include them anyway. As Spicoli would say, how totally bogus.
'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' is one of the most beloved teen comedies of the 1980s, and it continues to make new fans today. This is a nice HD DVD release, if nothing truly special -- the transfer offers a solid upgrade over the standard-def DVD, though the soundtrack and extras are hardly new. Still, worth considering for a purchase, especially if you don't already own the film on disc.