Fast Times At Ridgemont High is the 1982 answer to American Graffiti. It’s an ensemble teen comedy that touches on deeper issues, and which serves as a kind of time capsule to the period in which it was made. Seen today, the movie still holds up as entertaining and truthful, even if the fashions and music are a bit dated. The new Blu-ray unfortunately does not have anything close to the “perfect picture” advertised on the packaging. However, the sound is good, and most of the extras are the better ones ported over from the earlier DVD editions.
AT RIDGEMONT HIGH
Studio: Universal/Refugee Films
Length: 1 hr 30 mins
Genre: Teen Comedy/High School/1980s
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
BD Resolution and Codec: 1080p, VC-1 (@ an average 33 mbps)
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 2.7 mbps)
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Film Rating: R (Nudity, Sex, Language, Drug Use, Disrespect of Mr. Hand)
Release Date: August 9, 2011
Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus and Ray Walston, with appearances by Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Coppola
Screenplay by: Cameron Crowe
Based on the Book by: Cameron Crowe
Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Film Rating: 4/5
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is one of those movies where you have an embarrassment of riches in the cast. As the early scenes roll on, you keep seeing all these familiar faces from what I can barely admit have now been the last 30 years of movies and television: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Forest Whitaker, etc. Not only are all of them quite good here, but the material they’re playing is of a higher level than you would think from all the advertising around the movie. When the movie was released in 1982, I still remember the TV ads playing up the pot angle, and I distinctly remember a dismissive Los Angeles review that summed up the movie as “Gidget gets an abortion.” That’s both unfair and untrue, even if it made that reviewer feel superior to the film when he wrote the line. It’s actually an ensemble comedy in a similar mode to American Graffiti, only without the period nostalgia. Fast Times At Ridgemont High takes the audience through a single year at the fictional high school, as the primary characters work their way through various problems. There isn’t one driving storyline, but the center of the film has two relatively innocent freshmen – Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) – who learn lessons about love and life both with the help of and in spite of their friends. There’s also a side story about Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) who is working his way through his senior year in a variety of fast food jobs. And there’s a series of comic vignettes featuring surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and his encounters with strict teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). There’s a lot of funny material in this movie, and more great dialogue than critics realized at the time it was released. And there’s also some real feeling here. When Stacy and Ratner encounter heartbreak and disappointment, the movie doesn’t pull the punch. This is a movie I could easily watch once a year, and never grow bored with it.
The movie stems from a 1981 book written by then-Rolling Stone reporter Cameron Crowe. Since he looked much younger than his actual age, Crowe was able to enroll at Clairemont High School in San Diego and compile plenty of material from the people and events he experienced there. Typically of Crowe, the stories he told were fresh and honest, and like the later works of John Hughes, the characters spoke in the actual language you could expect to hear at a real high school. When the book was translated by Crowe into a screenplay, the filmmakers were able to assemble a young cast who could convincingly bring those characters to life. Given that this was a low budget production, almost all of the cast were appearing in a movie for either the first time or one of the very first times. For his part, Sean Penn was making his second feature film, modeling Spicoli from several real surfers he knew from his school days. In a fairly short period of time, the movie was produced and released, initially becoming a small hit. Over time, the movie became a much bigger sleeper hit thanks to word of mouth and to the spread of cable TV. More teen sex comedies followed it, but very few had the level of heart that this one carried below the surface. (Valley Girl is one of the rare ones that did.) Buttressing the onscreen action is a then-current rock soundtrack that includes some of the better acts of the time. It’s interesting to note that no less than four of The Eagles contributed solo tracks to the soundtrack while their song “Life in the Fast Lane” is played by a cover band during the graduation dance. (Of course, having Eagles manager Irving Azoff as one of the producers wouldn’t have anything to do with that…) The movie opens with the Go-Gos’ hit “We Got The Beat” and closes with a great Oingo Boingo bit of doggerel called “Goodbye, Goodbye”. By this point, you’ve probably got the idea that I have some affection for this film – and you’d be right.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High has been released multiple times on DVD, as well as on HD-DVD. To wit, there was a Collector’s Edition DVD released in 1999, with an anamorphic transfer and 2.0 mono sound. This release also included a great commentary track by Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe, a 40 minute documentary on the making of the movie, the trailer, a video map of the various locations, a guide to musical highlights and great quotes, and the usual DVD production notes and bios. This was then re-released in 2003 as part of the “High School Reunion Collection”. A “Totally Awesome Special Edition” DVD release came in 2004, this time incorporating Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 sound mixes along with the existing extras. In October 2006, the movie was released on an HD-DVD/DVD flipper disc. The HD-DVD side had a 1080p VC-1 transfer and Dolby Digital Plus sound, while the DVD side essentially held the 2004 release.
For this year’s Blu-ray release, you’re looking at most of the extra features from the 1999 DVD, along with a 1080p VC-1 transfer, a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix and a pair of PIP U-Control functions that can be helpful here and there. I believe that the Blu-ray is using the same VC-1 transfer as the HD-DVD but I have been unable to confirm this. The issue here is whether the viewer wants to pick up the title on Blu-ray, and that’s really going to ride on whether the picture and sound upgrade is worth the repurchase. (This assumes the viewer already owns the title.) This is a time where I cannot recommend a new purchase. I strongly recommend fans of the movie who have large screen HDTVs rent this title before buying. There are picture quality issues here that may give you pause.
VIDEO QUALITY 2/5
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is presented in a 1080p VC-1 1.85:1 transfer that caused me considerable distress almost right out of the gate. There is a significant amount of noise in the picture throughout, and close-ups are marred both by the noise in the background and by what appears to be an attempt at digital correction in the foreground. It’s possible that the noise is simply obstructing everything in the frame, but on a large screen, it gets so distracting that I was literally taken out of the movie almost every time it happened. (As an example, watch an early scene at Perry’s Pizza where the waitresses gossip about the hot guy and Stacy takes his order – the close-ups throughout are filled with this problem. As another example, a late scene between Spicoli and Mr. Hand discussing history is also filled with this problem.) Some of this can be traced to the low budget shoot under low light conditions – my examples here were all filmed as interiors and mostly at night. But American Graffiti was similarly shot under low light conditions and did not have anything like this problem on its Blu-ray. From what I can tell, we’re looking at the same transfer as was used on the HD-DVD – meaning that this is an older transfer and that the HD-DVD had the same PQ issues.
AUDIO QUALITY 3 ½/5
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that does just fine with the dialogue and the music throughout, but doesn’t do anything particularly spectacular. There’s some atmospheric sound, but only in a sporadic way. This is certainly not a heavy subwoofer show – the emphasis is firmly on the front channels, which is appropriate given the nature of the movie and the low budget of the production.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3 ½/5
The Blu-ray presentation of Fast Times At Ridgemont High comes with multiple special features, almost all of which are drawn the initial 1999 DVD release. There’s a bit of PIP functionality, providing a music guide and repurposing material from the earlier documentary into a series of PIP moments. The usual BD-Live and pocket BLU materials are included.
Feature Commentary with Director Amy Heckerling and Writer Cameron Crowe – (FROM THE 1999 DVD) – This is one of the great commentaries out there. It’s a scene-specific talk with Heckerling and Crowe as they watch the movie with us, and it’s still fun to hear, even 12 years after it was recorded. Crowe seems to have a photographic memory for everything that was going on during the shoot, and he and Heckerling have a great time remembering what’s behind the various shots and scenes. At one point, Heckerling tells a great story about the studio having some doubts about her work and sending John Landis to sit on the set to check on her. This is great stuff. UPDATE: Thanks to poster WillG, I have gone back and confirmed that the final 7 minutes of the commentary has not been included here. On the 1999 DVD, I noted that the commentary continues over black screen for an additional 7 minutes after the end credits are done. Heckerling and Crowe continue discussing anxieties about how the film was produced and what happened when it came out, as well as Sean Penn's workstyle and the legacy of the movie before singing a few bars of "Goodbye, Goodbye". On the Blu-ray, this final 7 minutes is left off, and the commentary stops at the "R" Rating screen. At least they didn't interrupt Amy Heckerling in mid-sentence...
Reliving Our Fast Times At Ridgemont High – (39:15, Full Frame, 480p) (FROM THE 1999 DVD) – The interview collection from the 1999 DVD is included here, and it’s still fun to watch, including recollections from Amy Heckerling, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus and Judge Reinhold as well as various other production personnel. The hard part about watching this is that the cast already look much older in the documentary, and it’s already been another 12 years…
Trailer – (1:36, Full Frame, 480p) (FROM THE 1999 DVD) – A full frame copy of the movie’s trailer is included here in standard definition. This is another holdover from the 1999 DVD..
There are also two U-Control PIP functions available here:
The Music of Fast Times At Ridgemont High PIP – This function provides information about whatever song is being played on the soundtrack at the moment. There are options for making a playlist of the songs and/or purchasing them from iTunes.
Scene Companion PIP – This function holds the one bit of new work done for this release. At various points during the movie, a PIP screen will appear, containing footage of interviews from the 1999 documentary. Only in this case, we’re seeing longer cuts of the interviews than were included in the documentary. The only drawback here is that there is some kind of video effect overlaid onto the PIP screen so a moving pattern passes over the footage in a distracting manner.
BD-Live – The usual BD-Live functionality is present.
Pocket BLU – The usual pocket BLU functionality is present.
The movie and special features are subtitled in English, Spanish and French. The usual chapter and pop-up menus are present. When you first put the Blu-ray into the player, you’ll see a few BD-Live trailers for upcoming Blu-ray releases.
IN THE END...
Fast Times at Ridgemont High continues to be an entertaining movie nearly 30 years after its original release. Fans of the movie likely already have it on DVD, and should think carefully before buying the title again on Blu-ray. There are picture quality issues here that may give one pause, and I strongly recommend renting first and evaluating them yourself before making a purchase.
August 12, 2011.
Equipment now in use in this Home Theater:
Panasonic 65” VT30 Plasma 3D HDTV – set at “THX” picture mode
Denon AVR-3311Cl Receiver
Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray Player
PS3 Player (used for calculation of bitrates for picture and sound)
5 Mirage Speakers (Front Left/Center/Right, Surround Back Left/Right)
2 Sony Speakers (Surround Left/Right – middle of room)
Martin Logan Dynamo 700 Subwoofer