The film was the directorial debut of Amy Heckerling and chronicles a school year in the lives of sophomores Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), and their respective older friends Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), both of whom believe themselves wiser in the ways of romance than their younger counterparts. The ensemble cast of characters form two subplots with Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), a perpetually stoned surfer, facing off against uptight history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), and Stacy's older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), a senior who works at a series of entry-level jobs in order to pay off his car, and who is pondering ending his two year relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa (Amanda Wyss).
In addition to Penn, Reinhold, Cates and Leigh, the film marks early appearances by several actors who later became stars, including Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, and Anthony Edwards. Among these actors, Penn, Cage, and Whitaker would later win the Academy Award for Best Actor, with Penn winning twice.
In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Brad Hamilton is a popular senior at Ridgemont High School and is looking forward to his final year of school and almost has his 1960 Buick LeSabre paid off. He has a job at All-American Burger, where his girlfriend Lisa also works; Brad is eventually fired for lashing out at an obnoxious customer. When trying to tell Lisa how much he needs her, she informs Brad that she wants to break up with him in order to date other guys. Brad then quits his job at Captain Hook Fish & Chips because of the humiliation of having to wear a pirate costume when delivering food.
Brad's sister Stacy is a 15-year-old sophomore and also a virgin. She works at a pizza parlor at the Ridgemont Mall alongside her outspoken friend, the popular and sexually active Linda Barrett. One night at work, Stacy takes an order from Ron Johnson, a 26-year-old stereo salesman who asks her out after she tells him she's 19 years old. She later sneaks out of her house to meet him and they have sex in a dugout at a softball field. Stacy never hears from Ron again, revealing the loss of her virginity to Linda.
Mike Damone, a somewhat smooth-talking know-it-all, who earns money taking bets and scalping concert tickets, fancies himself a sagacious and worldly ladies' man. Mike's shy but amiable friend Mark Ratner works at the movie theater across from the pizza parlor at the mall. When Mark proclaims his love for Stacy to him, Mike lets Mark in on his five secrets for picking up girls. Mike later convinces Mark to ask Stacy out on a date to a German restaurant. Afterwards, at her home, Stacy invites Mark into her bedroom, where they look at Stacy's photo album together. They begin to kiss, but Mark abruptly leaves after Stacy attempts to seduce him. Stacy mistakenly interprets Mark's shyness as disinterest. Eventually Stacy becomes interested in Damone and she invites him to have a swim in her pool, which leads to them having sex in the pool house. Stacy later informs Damone that she is pregnant, and tells him she's scheduled an abortion and wants him to pay half of the bill. On the day of her appointment, embarrassed at being unable to raise the money for his half of the bill, Damone begins to ignore Stacy. Stacy asks Brad to drive her to a bowling alley to meet friends, but Brad sees Stacy enter the abortion clinic across the street. Brad waits for Stacy and he confronts her about the abortion. Stacy has Brad promise not to tell their parents. When Stacy tells Linda, Linda becomes angry at Damone, leading to an almost physical confrontation between Damone and Mark in the boys' locker room until it is broken up by the gym teacher.
Jeff Spicoli is a stoner and surfer who runs afoul of strict history teacher Mr. Hand, who is intolerant of Spicoli's disregard of the rules of his classroom. One night, Spicoli wrecks Ridgemont star football player Charles Jefferson's 1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 during a joyride with Jefferson's younger brother. Spicoli decides to park the car in front of the school with slurs painted on it supposedly written by Ridgemont's rival, Lincoln High. When Ridgemont plays Lincoln, Jefferson (furious about his car) thrashes several of Lincoln's players and wins the game for Ridgemont. On the evening of the graduation dance, Mr. Hand shows up at Spicoli's house and informs him that since he has wasted eight hours of class time over the past year, Mr. Hand intends to make up for it that night. They have a one-on-one session that lasts until Mr. Hand is satisfied that Spicoli has understood the lesson.
In the end, Mark and Stacy get back together. Brad takes a job at a convenience store and is promoted to manager after foiling a robbery, with help from Spicoli. The fates of some of the other characters are revealed in an epilogue: Spicoli saves Brooke Shields from drowning and then spends the reward money hiring Van Halen to play at his birthday party. Linda gets accepted to UC Riverside and moves in with her Abnormal Psychology professor. Damone gets arrested for scalping Ozzy Osbourne tickets and gets a job at 7-Eleven, and Mr. Hand still believes everyone is "on dope".
The film is adapted from a book Crowe wrote after a year spent at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California. He went undercover to do research for his 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, about his observations of the high school and the students he befriended there, including then-student Andy Rathbone, on whom the character "Rat" was modeled.
Heckerling shepherded the young cast, which included Nicolas Cage in his first feature-film role, portraying an unnamed co-worker of Brad's at All-American Burger. He was credited as "Nicolas Coppola." It was also the film debut for Eric Stoltz and provided early roles for Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker. Crowe's future wife Nancy Wilson of Heart has a cameo as the "Beautiful Girl in Car" who laughs at Brad at the red light in his Captain Hook uniform.
Fast Times was filmed in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles (though the location is never mentioned in the film) from November 10 through December 28, 1981. Many people identify the movie with that area and the teen culture associated with it in the early 1980s. "Ridgemont" is the name Crowe gave to Clairemont, the San Diego high school at which he posed as a student. (Spicoli mentions surfing at Sunset Cliffs, a genuine surf spot in San Diego.) Most of the exteriors of Ridgemont High School were shot at Van Nuys High School, and other scenes were shot at Canoga Park High School. The "carrot" scene and football game were shot at James Monroe High School in Sepulveda (now called North Hills). The "Ridgemont Mall" scenes used Sherman Oaks Galleria for interiors, and Santa Monica Place for exterior shots. Both have since been converted to open-air malls. "The Point" was filmed at the Encino Little League Field in Encino.
In the DVD commentary, director Heckerling tells of how Cates was initially reluctant to carry out her character's poolside topless scene at the house in West Hills because she thought the neighbors might be spying on the set from the surrounding rooftops.
The soundtrack album, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Music from the Motion Picture, peaked at #54 on the Billboard album chart. The soundtrack features the work of many quintessential 1980s rock artists.
Several of the movie's songs were released as singles, including Jackson Browne's "Somebody's Baby", which reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Other singles were the title track by Sammy Hagar, a cover of The Tymes' "So Much in Love" by Timothy B. Schmit, "Raised on the Radio" by the Ravyns and "Waffle Stomp" by Joe Walsh. In addition to Schmit and Walsh, the album features solo tracks by two other members of the Eagles, Don Henley and Don Felder. The soundtrack also included "I Don't Know (Spicoli's Theme)" by Jimmy Buffett and "Goodbye Goodbye" by Oingo Boingo (led by Danny Elfman).
Five tracks in the film, but not included on the soundtrack, are: "Moving in Stereo" by the Cars, "American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "We Got the Beat" by the Go Go's, which is the movie's opening theme; Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir", and "Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms. In addition, the live band at the prom dance during the end of the film played two songs also not on the soundtrack: The Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane" and Sam the Sham's "Wooly Bully".
The Donna Summer track, "Highway Runner", was initially recorded in 1981 for her double album entitled I'm a Rainbow; however, the album was shelved by Summer's then-label, Geffen Records, but ultimately released in 1996 by Mercury Records.
Todd Rundgren also recorded the song, "Attitude", for the film at Crowe's request. It was not included in the film, but was later released on Rundgren's Demos and Lost Albums in 2001.
In some countries, the album was (also) released as a single LP with ten tracks.
Heckerling, in the DVD audio commentary, states that the 1970s "classic rock" artists, like the Eagles, were introduced by one of the film's producers. Coincidentally, Irving Azoff, one of the film's producers, was the personal manager for the Eagles and Stevie Nicks.
Universal gave the film a limited theatrical release on August 13, 1982, opening in 498 theaters. It earned $2.5 million in its opening weekend. The release was later widened to 713 theaters, earning $3.25 million. The film ranked 29th among US releases in 1982, ultimately earning more than $27 million, six times its $4.5 million budget, and later gaining popularity through television and home video releases.
Over the years the film has obtained an iconic status. In an interview, Penn stated: "None of us had any idea it would take on a life of its own."
The film has a 78% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 48 reviews, with the site's consensus stating "While Fast Times at Ridgemont High features Sean Penn's legendary performance, the film endures because it accurately captured the small details of school, work, and teenage life."
Roger Ebert called it a "scuz-pit of a movie", though he praised the performances by Leigh, Penn, Cates, and Reinhold. Janet Maslin wrote that it was "a jumbled but appealing teen-age comedy with something of a fresh perspective on the subject."
Crowe's screenplay was nominated for a WGA Award for best comedy adapted from another medium. The film ranks #15 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies", and #2 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the "50 Best High School Movies".
The film is also recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #87
The film inspired a short-lived 1986 television series for CBS called Fast Times. Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprised their roles, respectively as Hand and Vargas, the biology teacher. Other cast members were Courtney Thorne-Smith (Melrose Place) as Stacy, Wallace Langham (credited as Wally Ward) as Mark, Claudia Wells (Back to the Future) as Linda, Patrick Dempsey (Grey's Anatomy) as Mike Damone, Dean Cameron as Jeff Spicoli, and James Nardini as Brad. Kit McDonough played teacher Leslie Melon, a character that was exclusive to the series.
Moon Zappa was a "technical consultant" for the television series. She was hired in order to research slang terms and mannerisms of teenagers, as she had just graduated from high school at the time and had a much better grasp of then-current high school behavior than the writers, and Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo) wrote and performed the television series theme.