'Fast Times' at 40: Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe on the Musical Tug-of-War Behind the Iconic Soundtrack


Fast Times at Ridgemont High, released in theaters on Aug. 13, 1982 (40 years ago this weekend), is a film with a classic rock soundtrack but a punk/new wave heart.

It's a duality that exists thanks to the disparate yet kindred tastes of its creators, director Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe. According to both of them, legendary music executive Irving Azoff - who co-produced the film with Art Linson - also played a key role in which songs set the tone for a brilliant ensemble cast who captured the pulse of teenage life in the early 1980s.

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"When I was brought on, I was told that Irving Azoff soundtracks were driving the movies they were making at Universal," Heckerling tells Billboard. "And the movie would be made because it was gonna have an Irving Azoff soundtrack. They had a deal with him, and theoretically I think the soundtracks made more money than the movies at the time. So when Art Linson showed me the script and told me about it, he was like, 'Look, this is not like you're writing a movie and you can put in what songs you want and try to them and then your second and third and fourth favorite.' This was being driven by the songs of the acts that he has that will be on the album."

"Irving Azoff has been a friend of mine for a really long time, who I first met when he was just a regional guy working with Joe Walsh. I always stayed friends with him. He applies his muscle from time to time to help me out in the treacherous waters of business," Crowe tells Billboard. "I'm a writer, and he's a guy who will slash and burn in the service of writers. So he came in and he helped Fast Times the movie get made. And also, we really enjoyed the idea that we were gonna do this album with of a bunch of new music, and a lot of them were his artists."

What transpired was a compromise where solo tracks from Eagles members Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Timothy B. Schmit and Don Henley existed seamlessly with ephemera placed strategically throughout the movie via pins, posters, bumper stickers and other visual Easter eggs for the deep music fan. Much of the stuff can be found in the room and on the person of cocky ticket scapler Mike Damone, played with attitude and panache by actor Robert Romanus.

"With Damone, I was very, very, very specific, 'cause it was Pete Townshend and Buzzcocks and Elvis Costello and people that I love," Heckerling explains. "I loved ska. I loved punk. I loved new wave. So Damone represented all of the things that I was in love with. And then punk was sort of turning into new wave back then, and then Debbie Harry and Blondie started having hits, you know, Cheap Trick and The Knack. Things that started out punky then were turning more friendly, but they still had that drive and sense of fun."

"None of us were sure we'd ever get another chance," adds Crowe. "So being music lovers, we just tried to put so many of our heroes or tribute moments to them in there. I wanted to make sure Pete Townshend was in there with that great Annie Leibovitz shot with his bleeding hand in Damone's room. Amy was really loving Bruce Springsteen. We all were at the time, and Pam Springsteen was in the movie. And we wanted to pay a little tribute to Bruce in it with the bumper sticker on Brad's car." (The character of Brad Hamilton was played by Judge Reinhold.)

One of the most famous references, of course, was Led Zeppelin, whose Physical Graffiti song "Kashmir" played a prominent role in the scene where characters Mark "Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer) and Stacy Hamilton (played by the great Jennifer Jason Leigh) go on their first date.

"I feel like the big one that people still never get to the bottom of is why did we play 'Kashmir' when it was supposed to be side one of Led Zeppelin IV," explains Crowe in reference to Damone's romantic advice he levied to Rat outside the mall record shop. "Well, the story was nobody was sure we were gonna get any of Led Zeppelin's music to use, because basically they hadn't given it to anybody. But because I had written about them for Rolling Stone and had a good relationship with them and wrote liner notes and stuff, I thought we'd do a Hail Mary and ask. I was shocked when it came back yes. But the stipulation was because of some publishing agreement, it had to be something that started with the Physical Graffiti period. Then it's like, 'Okay, this is an embarrassment of riches.' So we have 'Kashmir' and we love that we get to use 'Kashmir,' but the book and the script had side one of Led Zeppelin IV. And the thing that made me really laugh in the day and still kind of does was like the Rat gets it wrong, you know? He doesn't have the right Led Zeppelin album. Little did I know that it would confound everybody. But it's the Rat, man. He ends up having a bad night."

When Crowe was doing research for the book that would become the film, he went undercover as a high school student in San Diego. At that point, Zeppelin played a much larger role in the initial story.

"The original idea for the book was to call it Stairway To Heaven," reveals Crowe. "Because early in that school year, the word came down through a guy who worked at the ticket office at the San Diego Sports Arena. He had heard that Led Zeppelin were gonna do this tour. I guess this would have been the In Through The Out Door tour. It was the tour that never happened because it never got to America because John Bonham died. [There was] this whole school year where a lot of kids were saving up to get great tickets and planning how they were going to see Led Zeppelin coming to town. This went on for months and months and months, then Bonham died. And it was a seismic reaction at this school. And so it felt like the kind of overarching story of that whole school year where Led Zeppelin almost made it to town and culture was changing and Zeppelin was gonna break up. It felt like an American Graffiti kind of story, especially with the backdrop of the Led Zeppelin tour. But in the end, the stars were the kids and the students and their lives, and the 'Led Zeppelin coming to town' theme melted away. It just became an account of that school year and the relationships between Brad Hamilton and his sister and that group of friends."

Despite the pulse of '70s album rock that coursed through much of Fast Times, the film was bookended by a pair of new wave acts that represented the bleeding edge of the times in The Go-Go's and Oingo Boingo.

"They originally wanted me to use a song that I really didn't like," Heckerling explains of "Raised On The Radio" by The Rayvns, which would appear in the scene where Brad washes his car. "I had used The Go-Go's in all the temp tracks, but we couldn't possibly have that because it was becoming a giant hit and everybody's saying 'no.' So I was thinking about what was possibly to have, and I had this record by Kim Wilde that was 'Kids In America.' And I thought, 'Well, this is kind of a cool song for seeing all the kids in the mall and all these different types of personalities.' But I would put it in Clueless a decade-and-a-half later."

"They're heroes in this scenario for us, because obviously we love The Go-Go's and I really wanted to have a bunch of original music because I thought it would create its own reality," adds Crowe. "This was all music you were hearing that didn't exist before. And we had to have 'We Got The Beat' - it was the soul of the beginning of the movie. The whole movie, you can say, is an elixir brought on by 'We Got The Beat.' And what was going on was that they were blowing up huge and everyone wanted the music of The Go-Go's. Their manager and the band were really loyal about letting us have 'We Got The Beat' when I think a lot of bigger money and bigger ideas were after them. But they were true knowing that we loved the band early and I will always be grateful about that."

With regards to Oingo Boingo, Heckerling reveals to Billboard how she and composer Danny Elfman go back to her days at New York University.

"I knew this guy who had helped me with music for my student film," she explains. "When I was in college, he didn't go to college. He went to Africa to import all these percussion instruments. And then we would go out and see all these Betty Boop movies, because we both loved Betty Boop and Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. And he was in a group called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Well, that was Danny Elfman.

"So I asked if we could put his song in there. And apparently nobody liked it. I mean, I'm sure Cameron must've liked it. But ultimately different studio people came in and mediated between me sort of being a brat and Irving, who wanted certain songs from his stable and there was a mishmash of a lot of that stuff. I knew I wanted songs that I would like, and me and the guy that played Arnold, Scott Thompson, we went over to Danny's house in Venice (Calif.) or something and he played us this country and western song, 'Goodbye, Goodbye.' He could do anything in any style. Scott Thompson asked if we could hear the song again, and I told Danny I wanted fun, new wave, real energetic stuff. And he said, 'I could do that to that.' It was like Scott Thompson knew the possibilities and Danny knew he could turn it into that."

Then there were songs that would help expose '70s acts to a whole new audience, like "Somebody's Baby" by Jackson Browne, which scored the pair of incredibly awkward sexual situations experienced by Leigh's character.

"'Somebody's Baby' is really a lesson, because the guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who played with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt and Carole King, had that riff and Jackson bashed that out," explains Crowe. "I think it was one of those songs that wrote itself very quickly and there wasn't a lot of time to overthink it or anything. And I think he put it out not really realizing it would become his biggest hit [No. 7 on the Hot 100]. Of course, his audience was not pop, it was more singer-songwriter, and 'Somebody's Baby' is pure pop. I think he's introduced it through the years like, 'Here's an anthem I wrote about premature ejaculation' or something like that. But it was such a romantic song. I thought it was a gem. And through the years it's become such an important part of his body of work and now he opens with it."

The most iconic sonic moment in Fast Times is the dream sequence where actress Phoebe Cates, who plays mature/immature pizzeria waitress Linda, emerges from the swimming pool and goes topless to the tune of "Moving In Stereo" by The Cars.

"[Film editor] Eric Jenkins said to me, 'I tried something and I want to show you,'" Heckerling says of making the sequence. "I never really thought much about that song. I mean, I love The Cars, but I wasn't thinking about it. Then he showed me the bikini scene and I was like, 'that's amazing. It was too good, and we probably can't have it.' But we could."

Without that push-pull dynamic of Heckerling and Crowe when it came to the music and the vibe of Fast Times, the movie we know and love 40 years later might've never had the spirit that keeps it on the forefront of pop culture (just ask the creators of Stranger Things).

"Amy had a feeling that, 'one more Eagles member with a song in this movie and I'm gonna freak out because I'm a CBGB girl,'" laughs Crowe. "She has a punk soul, and she's straight out of New York. So I don't know that [Don Henley's] 'Love Rules' was her kind of song. But what you have is the crossroads where Amy and I meet and have a good time listening to music together. And you know, her style 40 years later looks visionary. It really is her sensibility where she's from New York, I'm from California. She's not about unearned sentimentality; she's tough, but with a great heart. But you're not gonna get that heart easily. You gotta be real. And Amy was that way in directing the movie."

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