Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The wild world of adolescence has rarely been captured with as sharp an observational eye as in this refreshingly smart, frank spin on the teen comedy by director Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe—for each of whom it kicked off a hugely successful film career. Based on Crowe’s experiences going undercover as a student at a Southern California high school, Fast Times at Ridgemont High blends hormone-fueled hilarity with an almost sociological examination of the 1980s teenage experience: the shopping-mall hangouts, fast-food jobs, buzzkill teachers, awkward dates, and first experiences of love and sex. This pop-culture touchstone launched to stardom practically an entire cast of unknowns—including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Sean Penn as stoner icon Jeff Spicoli—and broke new ground in its raw yet sensitive depiction of the realities of coming of age.
The Criterion Collection presents a new Blu-ray edition for Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. Criterion sources the 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation from a new 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
There was a lot of early controversy around the colours of the presentation (and another aspect I’ll get to), and now having seen the disc I’d have to say the outcry was a little overblown: by the reactions you’d think all of the colours had been sucked out, like the film went through a bleach by-pass or something, and that’s clearly not the case. Admittedly the colours are noticeably cooler and they can be a bit pastier in places, with the scenes in the mall taking on a far more obvious cold, teal look, but generally speaking this looks like something from the late 70’s/early 80’s. I think part of the reason behind this negative perception is that the old Universal discs did push the reds more, with skin tones looking more pinkish, so it’s easy to see how the tonal shift could be a shock to some, and why one would think this looks muted in comparison.
But no, this film hasn’t had all of the colours sucked out of it. Getting past the slightly colder look the colours do look nicely saturated and clean, and there are plenty of vibrant reds, greens, yellows, blues, and more, Spicoli’s van looking especially great. Again, those mall interiors do look a little more washed and sterile when compared to the rest of the film, but it seems intentional. Black levels, on the other hand, are a little more all over the place, and this was the area I was most letdown by. Black levels are decent enough when you get down to it, but there are plenty of scenes (especially in those pastier mall interiors) where the blacks look milky and shadow detail is close to non-existent. Black levels can also come off incredibly heavy in some of the film’s nighttime sequences, further killing the details. Some of this is due to the original lighting and photography around the sequences, but I can’t say if that feeds into all of the issues around the black levels.
The other controversy around this release had to do with framing. Full disclosure, other than a couple of scenes I did not do a full comparison between this edition and the older Universal one, and I did not look at screen grabs already available online. Having said that, just watching the film there is nothing that sticks out here, no obvious things getting cut off, no jokes getting lost, no important information gone. Based on full screen presentations of the film (including the TV version on this disc) it appears the film was shot full frame and then matted for widescreen, and I’m going to wager a guess Heckerling reframed things for this disc, and this is most obvious during one shot in the film. Fans may have heard Heckerling mention in the commentary on previous editions (the same commentary found here) that Universal forced her to remove a full-frontal nude scene around Robert Romanus, reframing that scene so that everything below Romanus’ waste is out of frame, leaving a hell of a lot of head room above him. For this edition that shot has been adjusted to show more of Romanus. Since that scene was drastically reframed it’s pretty safe to assume that if any reframing was done Heckerling was more than likely behind it. But again, no, there’s nothing important missing and nothing ever sticks out while watching the film.
Now, as to the disc’s digital presentation it’s a sharp looking one. The film looks quite a ways grainier here, which can vary from shot to shot, looking finer in one sequence then a bit heavier in another, and the reasons could be because a different film stock was used, the frame is zoomed in on, or the shot is taken from a source other than the negative, but I can’t say for certain. Grain can look a little noisy in places but it’s generally clean and natural overall. Outside of a couple of dream/fantasy sequences, this all leads to a far sharper and more film-like image compared to Universal’s older editions. In this department, Criterion’s presentation provides an enormous improvement.
In the end, it’s probably the best the film has looked so far on home video. I’m disappointed (though not surprised) Criterion isn’t doing a 4K edition, but here’s hoping Universal may feel the need to do so in the future.
Criterion only includes the remastered 5.1 surround soundtrack created for Universal’s 2004 DVD edition—presented here in DTS-HD MA—and not the original monaural one. Thankfully the 5.1 mix keeps things fairly simple. Most everything is still kept to the fronts and it all sounds clean with excellent fidelity and decent range. The surround aspects works more to show off the film’s impressive and classic soundtrack, which fills out the environment wonderfully. I didn’t notice much else in the way of activity.
The film has received a number of special editions on DVD and Blu-ray through the years from Universal, none of which I would call jam-packed. That tradition disappointingly continues with Criterion’s new edition, but even if it does feel a little light on extras this edition is still an upgrade over all of those previous ones when all is said and done.
Criterion does port over Universal’s audio commentary featuring Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe, along with the making-of documentary Reliving Our “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Both are solid overviews of the production with the commentary being the stronger one. During the track both Heckerling and Crowe go over pre-production, which of course includes casting the then-unknowns (most of whom would go on to be stars) and they share a few stories around them, Sean Penn unsurprisingly be the stand-out to them at the time. The two also talk about the adaptation process, Crowe impressed and pleased with a number of Heckerling’s choices, and that feeling of Crowe’s also carried on to her choice of music in the film. They also discuss the studio interference, including them altering one shot to avoid an X rating (which has been restored here), because of a fear executives had around the film’s subject matter. Heckerling was able to stand her ground for most things, though.
It's an interesting and entertaining track that manages to offer a few surprises, like the fact that David Lynch (!) was first approached to direct the film.
The 39-minute documentary, originally produced for the Collector’s Edition DVD in 1999, makes for a nice addendum to the track. Heckerling appears here as well, but we also get perspectives from producer Art Linson, casting director Don Phillips, and then actors Brian Backer, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Eric Stoltz, Scott Thomson and Ray Walston. The documentary ends up spending more time around the casting and the actors share their stories around how they made it into the film, Reinhold’s story probably being the most amusing. To my disappointment, though, the interviews all feel too brief. I’m impressed that they were able to get who they did to talk about the film, but if Walston and Penn got more than a minute’s worth of time each I’d be surprised.
New to this edition, and possibly the disc’s most intriguing addition, is the television version of the film. For films like this, full of what some would call “objectionable” material (sex, nudity, and swearing), it’s always fun to see how the editors get around said material to make the film more family friendly plus fill a designated amount of time on television with commercials (in this case I’d say 2 hours). The film is already only 90-minutes long (with credits) and cutting out the nudity and many references to sex would significantly cut it down even further, yet this version manages to be a whole 5-minutes longer than the theatrical cut. The reason for this is that a lot of additional material not found in the theatrical version has been added. Nicolas Cage shows up in a couple of these scenes and even has lines, and a scene around a character’s abortion has also been added (in a 1982 archival interview found on this disc Heckerling explains why the scene was cut). A lot of the other additions are extended scenes, and it’s easy to see why they were cut (they go on too long), but they’re interesting to see, nonetheless.
What makes this even more fun to watch, though, is seeing how this version gets around the sex, nudity, and swearing. The swearing is of course dubbed over in most cases, with the editors’ going out of their way to remove all material around one character being called a “prick” in a few different ways, but for most everything else the material is simply cut. For example, both the dug-out and pool house scenes are completely expunged, changing the tone around what happens in these scenes, even romanticizing them to a degree in the follow-up scenes. Overtly sexual conversations, like the “carrot” scene, are also gone. The famous Phoebe Cates pool fantasy sequence is still there, but an alternate non-topless shot is used instead, and the actions of one character have been completely removed. Alternate takes are also used in a few other sequences, including a scene where Reinhold’s character is cleaning off an objectionable phrase written on a mirror (the phrase is far milder and less funny in this version).
The editing is also choppier in places, with awkward cutaways in the middle of extended scenes to cut out questionable material. One new scene, where Reinhold’s character is talking to a councilor about college, is also awkwardly inserted to fill in for another sequence, and it’s placed in the wrong place in the film’s timeline since he mentions he quit a job that he’s actually still working at during this point in the film. Some shots are also reframed to remove yet more “objectionable” material, a lot of that isolated to Spicoli’s room and his large collection of nude pictures on the wall (though some make their way through thanks to poor framing and blurring). This latter issue ended up forcing the editors to cut out the final scenes between Spicoli and Mr. Hand.
This version is, of course, no good, and the entire mood of the film is altered. The darker and more awkward aspects are lost, and some of the film’s best moments (like the final one between Spicoli and Mr. Hand) get lost or altered significantly. But it’s an interesting beast to view at least once, just to see how films like this were redone to be shown on television, with the added bonus of seeing deleted and alternate material. The presentation also isn’t half-bad. It’s full-frame/open-matte, but the image is quite clean when all is said and done. But if you want to see muted colours then look no further than this. While they’re not the worst I’ve seen, they’re far more lifeless in comparison to the main presentation.
EDIT: I forgot to mention that the television version, while full-frame, is presented at 1080p/24hz and looks to be sourced from 35mm film elements. This is clearly not from a broadcast tape.
A couple of other new features make their way on here as well. There is a new interview (performed remotely) between Heckerling, Crowe, and director/actor Olivia Wilde (34-minutes), further talking about the film. Some of the material is repeated from other features, but Crowe and Heckerling do expand on some aspects around the writing and adapting of Crowe’s book, and Wilde asks some targeted questions while also mentioning how the film impacted her and influenced her film Booksmart. I also had a good laugh at Heckerling referring to Law & Order: SVU as Law & Order: Sexy Victims. This is then followed by an archival audio recording of Heckerling at the AFI (47-minutes) in 1982, answering questions following a screening of the film. She is accompanied by producer/actor Stuart Cornfeld on-stage and actor Robert Romanus in the audience. She shares more details around issues she faced around the sex in the film and what had to get changed or cut (Romanus, rather cheekily, asks her from the audience if there was at least one thing that was cut from the film that she can think of), though she explains her experience with Universal was otherwise fine. She also talks more about what it was like as a recent AFI grad and the difficulty she had getting a film off of the ground before getting this film offered to her. This is a solid interview/Q&A session, and probably the most insightful additions around the film. Worth listening to.
Criterion then includes a short booklet, which opens with an intro by Cameron Crowe recalling how he first came to research for the book followed by the experience around the film’s production and its release. That intro is then followed by a loving essay by Dana Stevens, who first touches on how the film was unfairly maligned by critics at the time of its release.
Though the features are fine there are a couple of obvious gaps. One of the reasons Heckerling got the film was because of her AFI thesis film, Getting it Over With. This seems like an obvious addition, but I’d have to guess that rights issues stood in the way or Heckerling didn’t want it included. Also, though it clearly gets mentioned, there isn’t much about Crowe’s “undercover” research for his book, which called for him, at the age of 22, to pretend to be a high-school student. Though yes, we get to see (and read) the end results of that research, more stories around how he pulled that off would have been intriguing.
Getting past all of that, though, even if this isn’t the jam-packed edition I would have expected, this is a far more satisfying one compared to Universal’s previous offerings, and fans should get a kick out of going through everything.
Ignoring the controversies found online the presentation for this edition is significantly better than Universal’s dated ones, with this edition also offering a far more satisfying collection of bonus material. An easy recommendation.