Pump Up the Volume (United States, 1990)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Those who would bundle Pump Up the Volume with the other numerous teenage-oriented movies to dot the '80s and '90s cinematic landscape do the film and themselves a great disservice. Pump Up the Volume is smart, perceptive, thought-provoking, and well acted. It examines issues that the average teen/high school film rarely addresses. And the characters seem a lot more like the real people one finds walking school halls than the cardboard cut-outs with which Hollywood typically populates classrooms. Allan Moyle's picture is filled with purpose, and perhaps a little anger, and it's just as relevant - if not more so - to today's group of teenagers as it was to those of the last generation. Pump Up the Volume may be 14 years old, but it could have been produced now.

During the 1980s, teen movies predominantly splintered into two categories: John Hughes "dramadies" and the raunch of Porky's. Pump Up the Volume doesn't fit into either group, but reviewers of the time viewed it through Hughes-colored glasses. Yet anyone expecting to absorb something light and inoffensive may be jarred by Pump Up the Volume, which deals frankly with teen ennui, isolation, and impotence. It's about the darker aspects of the teen psyche - the impossibility of fulfilling others' expectations and the difficulty of facing a grim future, and the pressure (both self-imposed and societal) that results. There's a glimpse (and it's only a glimpse) into the cauldron of roiling, hormonally-fueled emotional instability that became one of the foundations for the Columbine tragedy.

Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) is an intelligent high school student whose move from New York to Arizona has thrown him into a profound state of depression and isolation. Mark is a shy, introverted kid who has left behind all his old friends and can't seem to make new ones. He describes himself this way: "I could be that anonymous nerd sitting across from you in chem lab, staring at you so hard. Then when you turn around he tries to smile, but the smile just comes out all wrong. You just think, How pathetic. Then he just looks away, and never looks back at you again." His parents, Brian (Scott Paulin) and Marla (Mimi Kennedy), are worried about him, but they don't know their son well enough to understand the depth of his psychological wound. In defining this relationship, Pump Up the Volume makes a small but telling point about the disconnect that often exists between children and parents (no matter how well-meaning they might be).

By day, Mark is a conscientious student whose writing teacher, Jan Emerson (Ellen Greene, Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors), praises his work, and who attracts the attention of goth girl Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis). But every night at 10:00, he is transformed into "Happy Harry Hard-on," a pirate radio DJ who uses his shortwave set to surf the airwaves. His nightly program lasts anywhere from five minutes to five hours, and features anti-mainstream music, profane rants against school and society, and faked masturbation sessions. It's enough to appall most adults who hear it, but it becomes a magnet for teenagers. Soon, Happy Harry is a local legend, but the moral conscience of the community begins to worry about his influence, especially when he says things like, "They say I'm disturbed. Well, of course I'm disturbed. I mean, we're all disturbed. And if we're not, why not? Doesn't this blend of blindness and blandness want to make you do something crazy? Then why not do something crazy? It makes a helluva lot more sense than blowing your… brains out."

The event that brings the Happy Harry controversy into the spotlight is when a young listener kills himself immediately after engaging in an on-air conversation with the DJ in which suicide is discussed. Community leaders, searching for someone to blame, elect to go after Happy Harry rather than the cold, emotionally distant parents of the dead boy. So the witch-hunt is on, with the noose drawing ever tighter as the number of involved law enforcement personnel increases.

For anyone who still believes they have stumbled into a John Hughes motion picture, listen to the music. Hughes loved peppering his movie soundtracks with safe, pop tunes, but there's nothing comfortable or familiar about Moyle's selection of songs for Pump Up the Volume. Led by a pair of Leonard Cohen dirges ("Everybody Knows" and "If It Be Your Will"), this is a collection of edgy and offbeat music, with nothing even close to dance-able. Liquid Jesus, Soundgarden, and the Beastie Boys also make contributions.

Pump Up the Volume is about the importance of teenagers having a voice, and the dangers of that voice being stifled by well-meaning but close-minded adults. High school and the teen years are depicted as ordeals to be endured, where the weak are ground underfoot. ("Being a teenager sucks. But that's the whole point. Surviving is the whole point.") For the most part, teenagers are more attuned to hypocrisy than adults, and the result is rebellion. The kids in Pump Up the Volume are rebelling, although, in many cases, they don't know against what. But, in Harry, they find someone whose acid words and ferocious anti-establishment diatribes speak to their souls. And parents find Harry threatening not because he preaches sedition and anarchy (although, to be fair, he's not family values-friendly), but because he exerts more influence over their children than they do. Consider the case of straight-A Paige (Cheryl Pollak), whose frustration about her perfect, ordered, high-pressure lifestyle explodes when she decides to take Harry's advice to do something crazy. ("They think you're moody, make 'em think you're crazy. Make 'em think you might snap. They say you got attitude, you show 'em some real attitude.")

Strangely, one can almost see Pump Up the Volume as a superhero movie. Happy Harry Hard-on is Allen Moyle's version of the Man of Steel, a supremely confident voice in the dark, whose words uncover hypocrisy and corruption wherever they reach. By day, however, he has a secret identity - that of the lonely, ignored Mark, who is afraid to have conversations with girls, doesn't like being singled out in class, and eats his lunch by himself while reading a book. No one would guess that Mark is Harry, whose slogans have become the fodder for graffiti artists and whose name is revered. Only Nora figures it out, and that's because she feels a deeper connection to Harry than most. Calling herself the "Eat Me Beat Me Lady," she corresponds with him anonymously until she discovers who he really is.

In addition to having a great deal to say about the teenage mindset, Pump Up the Volume also takes a pointed jab at the media, focusing on how the frenzy of a "hot" local news story can blow everything out of proportion. To this end, the film gives us numerous throw away shots of hotshot reporter Shep Sheppard (Clayton Landey) coming to the evening news audience live from the scene of the action. Admittedly, other movies have succeeded far better with this kind of take-no-prisoners satire, but it surprising how well it works here, where it's relegated to the back burner. Pump Up the Volume isn't about the capricious power of television news, but it nevertheless gets the point across.

The important members of the cast can be boiled down to two figures: Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis. Everyone else, from the supporting adults to the secondary high schoolers, represents little more than background color. This movie belongs to Slater and Mathis, and they dig into the roles with relish. It also helps that there's a palpable chemistry between them. Their romance is secondary to the main story, but they are convincing as two outsiders tentatively exploring attraction and sex.

For Slater, this role came in the midst of his time at the top. Nestled between Young Guns II and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Pump Up the Volume is easily forgotten (it was a theatrical bust, but has found a following on home video), but it arguably represents the best performance of Slater's career. He is believable as the shy, ineffectual Mark (although he lowers his head a few too many times in an attempt to convey insecurity), but really comes alive when he is transformed by the magic of the airwaves into Happy Harry. Mathis, in her first role, seems destined for the kind of stardom that ultimately eluded her. Watching her once again in this part, I found reason to lament what has become of her career (a small role as a murder victim in The Punisher).

One thing that can be criticized about Pump Up the Volume is its reliance upon the stock character of the High School Principal as the Wicked Witch of the West. Annie Ross plays the part like a one-dimensional harridan; she can be forgiven the absence of inspired acting, since that's how the role was written. Pump Up the Volume would have worked just as effectively with the character of Principal Loretta Creswood toned down or written out.

Since Pump Up the Volume had its short theatrical run in 1990, the Internet has become the medium of choice for the world's Happy Harry Hard-ons. Pirate radio stations are virtually things of the past; the Internet is the wave of the present, and there is no shortage of angry teenagers venting their feelings about what's wrong with the world. (It's interesting to note that many high school students, who are too young to vote, are more passionate about politics than the majority of eligible adults.) Yet the tone and the message remain the same, indicating that Pump Up the Volume, in addition to presenting an engaging story, has tapped into a universal truth about rebels with causes.

Pump Up the Volume (United States, 1990)

Director: Allan Moyle
Cast: Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Ellen Greene, Mimi Kennedy, Scott Paulin
Screenplay: Allan Moyle
Cinematography: Walt Lloyd
Music: Cliff Martinez
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1990-08-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1