Fast Times – Detroit Free Press

“Fast Times” Tackles Teen Themes for the ’80s

My high school years weren’t like what Cameron Crowe has written about in the book and screenplay for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” We spent more time fighting than surfing and partying; most of the people I knew still were virgins and most spent at least some time studying.

Crowe’s story, most of which occurs in the world of suburban shopping centers, fast-food places and beach hangouts, is upsetting—especially to officials of the San Diego school system and Clairmont High School, where Crowe posed as a high school senior during the 1979-80 school year to research his story.

“Our kids think it’s a pile of junk” says Charles Raleigh, principal at Clairmont. “Most of our kids think even junior highers wouldn’t enjoy it.”

Raleigh also contends that Crowe never attended any high school in the San Diego system, but Phil Petersen, director of secondary education for the district, validates Crowe’s attendance, though he isn’t any happier about the result.

“Cameron Crowe took advantage of the situation,” Petersen says. “He dragged out some dirty little stories that can be found in any high school in America. If everything in the story is true, it’s just like any other high school.”

That’s a compliment to Crowe. The “dirty little stories” are contemporary themes: problems with authority, apathy, role confusion and first sexual experiences. The original print of the film took one of those too far: A graphic sex scene between characters depicted as 15 and 16 earned the film an X-rating.

But even with that scene cut, Crowe thinks he has a movie as indicative of teen life in the ’80s as “American Graffiti” was of the ’50s.

“I wanted to write what it was like for the kid no one writes about,” Crowe says. “The high point of his year might be going to a Rod Stewart concert. The day-to-day drama is the real story, the tale of the unsung 15-year-old who has to work at a Carl’s Jr. (a popular West Coast hamburger chain).”

“Fast Times” was born in early 1979, when Crowe decided he wanted to write a book about teenagers. His own teen years were lost; at 15, he began writing for pop music magazines like Circus and Creem, and when he was 18, he was hired by Rolling Stone and turned out interviews with Neil Young, David Bowie and Warren Beatty, among others.

So Crowe talked then-principal William Burrows into letting him enroll at Clairmont for a year, fake name and all. Soon he was part of the group he wrote about: a stoned-out surfer named Jeff Spicoli (played by Sean Penn); a world-wise senior named Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates); her protege, 15-year-old Stacey Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh); Stacey’s brother Brad (Judge Reinhold); a smooth-mover named Mike Damone (Robert Romanus); and an innocent named Mark (the Rat) Ratner (Brian Backer)

The group is involved in tangled love affairs, identity crises, a general dissatisfaction with school and a constant search for something better than what they have. When Crowe’s book came out, the characters were well documented, and their real-life counterparts became celebrities in their neighborhoods.

Crowe says he remains in close contact with the group he wrote about, often going out for a pizza or catching a concert with them.

“The great thing is people say, ‘Don’t you feel like you were using these kids?’ I love those guys. I have a blast with those guys,” says Crowe. “The fact that they’re still my friends makes it surprising for me when people say, ‘You’d have to pay me a lot of money to hang out with 15-year-olds.'”

Courtesy of Detroit Free Press – Gary Graff – August 15, 1982