Pump Up the Volume (1990)

Director/Screenwriter: Allan Moyle

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I have a soft place in my heart for teen movies. Perhaps it stems from my adolescent crush on Mercutio (John McEnery) in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of that perennially updated classic of teen romance Romeo and Juliet—a crush that never really went away. I’ve commented favorably on the 80s takeoff on this classic, Valley Girl, and can still be found, hopelessly out of place, in lines waiting to get into teen movies, particularly if they involve dancing.

The 80s were a heady time, optimistic about a new “Morning in America,” as Ronald Reagan’s campaign ads liked to say, and teen movies of that era generally reflected the zeitgeist. Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, even The Breakfast Club managed to create happy environments in which kids got over on their parents and adult authority figures with relatively harmless ease. Pump Up the Volume follows the familiar formula of teenagers finding ways to thwart adult power, but its tone and eventual outcomes are much darker, much more a reflection of the new Lost Generation to come that elevated anger and cynicism to new heights of lyrical rebellion.

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“Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up? “ says Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), aka Happy Harry Hard-on, the pseudononymous DJ/radio host of his very own illegal, underground radio show. Mark, a recent and unwilling transplant to Paradise Valley, Arizona, has already sipped at the fountain of existential angst in the craven environs of New York. He finds his classmates at Hubert H. Humphrey High School repressed, oppressed, and out of touch. He feels like a stranger in a strange land and can’t talk to them face to face. So every night at 10 p.m., Mark lights a sign depicting a hand flipping the bird, activates his hopping penis toy, spins his theme song—that great song of defeat, “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen—and becomes Happy Harry, a raunchy, rebellious prophet, a teenage Howard Beal.

I’d say “much to his surprise,” but I think it’s no surprise at all to Mark that he builds a following. He’s even set up a P.O. box to receive mail from his similarly pseudononymous listeners. If they include phone numbers, he calls them. When he learns some dirt on school administrators—which he can because his father (Scott Paulin) is the district superintendent and leaves his mail lying around—he broadcasts it. One night, he reads a letter David Deaver (Robert Schenkkan), the head of the school counseling department, wrote to suggest a student’s expulsion. He also has the faculty’s private phone numbers, and calls up Deaver. After initially playing to Deaver’s vanity, Mark starts to grill him about why he ratted out a student who spoke to him in strictest confidence. Not surprisingly, Deaver hangs up. Happy Harry Hard-on becomes public enemy #1 at Humphrey High, with the Machiavellian principal Loretta Creswood (Annie Ross) pulling every dirty trick she can to find out his identity so she can expel him.

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Christian Slater, though full of mannered movements (he’s in a perpetual slouch when in the company of his peers), is a sexy, charismatic presence on screen. His personality combined with his rap on the plight of the nation, in general, and teenagers, in specific, make for some compelling listening, not only for the kids on screen but also for the movie audience. He coins several lines that rightly turn into memes in the film: “So be it,” and “Thought is a virus.” When he receives a letter that asks, “Should I kill myself,” he opines, “You hear about some kid who did something stupid, something desperate; what possessed him? How could he do such a terrible thing? …The terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead.” Unfortunately for Mark, he didn’t take the suicide threat seriously; the next day, the student is found dead, and Mark feels responsible. Thus, the darker side of letting it bleed on the air (shades of Jenni Jones and Rush Limbaugh) gets a hearing in this film.

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His foil, and the only person who discovers his identity, is Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis, in her screen debut), a girl transitioning from Pippi Longstocking wannabe to Goth rebel. She is turned on by Harry and sends him sexually explicit mash notes as the “eat me beat me” lady. She spends a good deal of the movie harassing him to pay attention to her and encouraging him to go on after the suicide and as his alarm at the revolution he has started keeps growing. As a couple, Slater and Mathis have a lot of chemistry (they became an item in real life), but Mathis is, frankly, pretty bad in this movie; she only captures attention because she’s so pretty. If I had to use Rod’s rating system for film debuts, I’d give her an “unpromising”—which would be inaccurate because she has become a pretty good actress. The pair’s almost-sex scene is embarrassingly bad—both topless, circling each other and licking their lips. Only Slater’s swoon on the ground after Mathis leaves breathes real sexual energy into the scene.

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Paige Woodward (Cheryl Pollak), cast as a preppie-looking achiever, but really an unhappy girl overstressed by everyone’s high expectations of her, has a real scene-stealing moment. Harry, extolling his “troops,” says, “Go nuts, go crazy, get creative! You got problems? You just chuck ’em, nuke ’em!” Paige takes him literally. Pulling the Yale banner off her wall, gathering up her cosmetics and other aids to perfection, she carries the lot into the kitchen, tosses them in the microwave oven, sets it, and sits at the kitchen table watching it explode and burn. It’s a great scene of teen rage, and I really appreciated that director/writer Moyle gave it to a female.

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As might be expected, the adults in the film are caricatures—clueless parents, cool teachers, evil guidance counselors, and ineffectual enforcers of the law. At one point, Arthur Watts (James Hampton), the head of the FCC, comes to Paradise Valley to apprehend the radio pirate. He stays lamely near his limo as his radio trucks, brought in to triangulate Mark’s broadcast signal to find him, spin like bumper cars trying to follow the now-mobile Mark, his broadcasting set-up rigged to his mother’s jeep. Eventually, cool teacher Jan Emerson (Ellen Greene) finds incriminating evidence against the principal, allowing Mark’s father to redeem himself somewhat by suspending her. Only Annie Ross was able to modulate her performance to avoid playing a cackling witch, only to have it spoiled by a clichéd showdown with Mr. Hunter.

The film has a strictly meat-and-potatoes look. Aside from some interesting low camera angles that create some skewed perspectives, the shooting and editing are fairly unimaginative. Wardrobe shows the lingering fashion-victimization of the 1980s, complete with shoulder pads, horizontal striped tights, and pegged, viscous rayon slacks.

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What sets Pump Up the Volume apart as a true film for the 90s is the hopeless tone of its message and its soundtrack. All Mark can muster in the way of encouragement for his disaffected audience is, “We’re all worried, we’re all in pain. That just comes with having eyes and having ears. But just remember one thing—it can’t get any worse, it can only get better. High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point, surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there.” Gone is the conventional wisdom that “the best years of your life” happen when you’re young. The music he chooses to narrate his philosophy includes the Beastie Boys, Bad Brains with Henry Rollins, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth. David Was’ “Dad, I’m in Jail” is Mark’s appropriate choice as the police chase after his mobile studio and finally catch him at the edge of the field where his listeners congregate every night to share his broadcast. Finally, “Stand,” performed by Liquid Jesus accompanies Mark’s call to arms as he and Nora are arrested:

I’m calling for every kid to seize the air. Steal it, it belongs to you. Speak out, they can’t stop you. Find your voice and use it. Keep this thing going. Pick a name, go on the air. It’s your life, take charge of it. Do it, try it, try anything. Spill your guts out, say shit and fuck a million times if you want to, but you decide. Fill the air, steal it. Keep the air alive.

Many people who were teens in 1990 were listening to their version of a speech that has been said a thousand different times across a thousand generations. And despite their more-hopeless-than-usual disaffection, they have perhaps gone the farthest in heeding Harry’s words. Welcome to the Internet generation, folks.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    13th/08/2008 to 1:51 pm

    No loss of street cred here, Pump up the Volume is a nineties classic for the teen set. I was well out of my teens when it was released but I still thought Slater did a terrific job with the role. I remember thinking after this and Heathers that he was well on his way to a successful and award winning career. I’m still not sure what happened.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/08/2008 to 2:10 pm

    Slater has a new TV show coming on this fall. I’ve always been a fan of his, so I’ll probably tune in.
    Every time Pump Up the Volume is on cable, I watch it. It really grabs me.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    19th/08/2008 to 12:39 am

    I believe that the guy who directed this later helmed Empire Records, which like Pump Up The Volume, people regard as either one of the greatest movies of all time or one of the worst. He’s, like, the Ed Wood of Generation X.
    I hate everything about Pump Up The Volume except for the concept of a pirate radio station, but that said, I really enjoyed your review, Marilyn. This seems to be a movie crying out for a remake because it could be done so much better.

  • Romy spoke:
    15th/12/2009 to 2:21 pm

    I just saw this movie for the first time on Sunday. The font of the opening credits immediatley grabbed my attention. I have to say this movie outright beat both of my favorite movies [Donnie Darko, Saved!]. I loved everything about it.
    I can’t agree with everything you said. But, good reviews have to point out the good and bad points of films. Overall your review was great. This movie was just, amazing. Thank you for posting this [with pictures].
    Sincerely, Romy

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