Of all the movies I have seen about growing up as a teenager, this one is still far and away my favorite. It is also the one that hit me the hardest emotionally in that, after seeing all these movies about the nerds and jocks fighting each other on school grounds, this one had characters that I could actually relate to. I grew up during the years of "Beverly Hills 90210" which infected us with a fantasy version of the high school experience where you could have your troubles as a teenager, but that you would come out of it with a smile, a cute boyfriend or girlfriend and some fancy, fancy clothes that make you look oh so incredibly cool. "Pump Up The Volume" does not exist in that fantasy world, thank goodness.
Allow me to give you some background information about myself as it will inform how strongly I feel about this movie. My family had moved around quite a bit when I was a kid, but it actually didn’t bother me much until we moved from Southern California to Northern California. I lived in Thousand Oaks for five years, and at that point that was the longest I had ever lived in any one place. For once I felt settled, and then my dad quit his job and got a new one up north in the Bay Area, and my whole life went into upheaval as I had no choice but to move with my parents and away from a place that truly felt like home.
I had to start all over again making new friends, and even after all these years it still feels so unfair to have been put through that particular case of family uprooting. I became very antisocial and withdrawn at the time, so frustrated and depressed at this situation that I was thrown into. For a while, it felt like I could not talk to anybody. It was like I didn't know what to say. In retrospect, the fact that I got through my adolescence in one piece seems like a miracle.
"Pump Up The Volume" features a character that went through something very similar. Christian Slater gives one of his all-time best performances as Mark Humphreys, a high school senior who has just moved with his family from New York to a suburb in Arizona that appears to be in the middle of nowhere. He is a shy and withdrawn kid, clearly not happy about his situation. He can't talk to anybody, not even to his parents who he feels completely alienated from. But by night he is Happy Hard On, running a pirate radio DJ station deep in the basement of his parents’ new home. While Mark is very quiet in the classroom, he comes to life on the radio and rants about his new neighborhood and the world he is growing up in with complete abandon.
As time goes on, his radio program starts drawing in more and more listeners who relate to his message of talking hard. Chaos begins to rein at his high school and the administration works to control the situation, having no idea of what the kids are really going through. This scares Mark off to the point where he wants to stop doing his show, but since this is one of his biggest outlets for the frustration and aggression he constantly feels, he can’t bring himself to stop. It’s through his venting that he suddenly becomes the voice that everyone needs to hear, especially the kids.
“Pump Up The Volume” covers a lot of ground that other teenage movies don't bother to, and it's much more down to earth than others in the genre which, for me, was a huge relief. I got so used to seeing movies about the classroom dork winning the girl of his dreams or beating out the jocks that made him believe he was so uncool. Watching movies like those when I was a teenager just made me feel more ostracized than I already felt, so “Pump Up The Volume” was a godsend in how it had a main character I could actually relate to. Adolescents need movies like this to make them realize that they are not the only ones going through rough times, and to make them see that being a teenager is not all it's cracked up to be.
In one scene, Mark takes a call from a kid who admits he likes guys and ends up describing a truly humiliating situation he got trapped in. In another scene, he takes a call from a listener who writes in a letter that he wants to kill himself, and when Harry asks him why, the listener says to him with tears coming out of his eyes, "I'm all alone."
But as Mark quickly admits, maybe it is okay to be alone sometimes, and that in the end we are all alone. It sucks, but there seems to be no real escaping that fact. Then again, I have no problem with people proving me wrong on that.
A lot of people have complained that the adult characters are largely one-dimensional. While I can definitely see some validity in that argument, I also remember seeing a lot of these people in high school. Believe me, these people do exist. Annie Ross plays Loretta Creswood, the principal of Hubert Humphrey High, and she is a true bitch in every sense of the word. Loretta lives to see her students get the highest SAT scores in the state, and she has no time for troublemakers whom she sees as having no interest in education. I have friends of mine who are teachers, and they do not hesitate in telling me just how much they hate the principals they work with. The way they are described to me, they are even worse than the one Ross plays in this movie.
Then you have Mark's dad Brian (played by Scott Paulin) who at first seems oblivious about how to deal with his son's problems, but then turns out to be the students’ savior when he realizes that they need to be heard and not talked down to. At the same time, Loretta doesn’t show the least bit of regret in expelling those students she feels are undeserving of an education. Paulin is terrific in making Brian seem like much more than the average parent, and he makes the character a heroic educator in that he clearly understands that everyone has the right to an education.
Another great performance in “Pump Up The Volume” comes from Samantha Mathis who plays Nora Diniro, a total rebel and a free spirit who never apologizes for who she is. Nora ends up befriending the terribly shy Mark, and she later comes to discover his identity as the pirate radio DJ. Nora eventually becomes Mark’s conscience as she makes him realize the powerful effect he has on the kids in the town and on her as well. When he wants to back out when things get too dangerous for him, she angrily reminds him that he has a responsibility to the people who believe in him.
There's a great scene where the two of them are outside in Mark's backyard where he desperately wants to communicate to Nora, and she tries to make him as comfortable possible. Nora even ends up taking off her sweater and stands in front of Mark with her breasts bared; forcing Mark to look into her eyes as they quickly make a connection that will not be easily broken. Both Slater and Mathis have fantastic chemistry together, and Mathis creates the kind of free spirited character we all would have loved to have been like in high school.
“Pump Up The Volume” climaxes with the walls closing in on Mark as they try to figure out who Hard Harry is and shut him down for good. The fact that he continues to be defiant even as the authorities get closer and closer to catching him was really inspiring to me. You want to see him, in the words of Jack Black from "School Of Rock," stick it to the man. Then Slater delivers this piece of dialogue that has always stayed with me:
"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 strong, living will. So just hang on, and hang in there."
“Pump Up The Volume” still resonates very deeply for me all these years later. It came out back in the summer of 1990 which ironically was the summer before I started high school. It became one of the things that kept me going through adolescence even when I got very, very depressed. Unfortunately, it was a box office flop on its initial release, but it has since gained a strong following on home video and DVD. It's a following that I hope will continue to grow, and maybe if we're lucky there will eventually be a special edition DVD and Blu-ray that will contain documentaries, trailers, audio commentaries and even music videos. Hey, Criterion Collection, are you listening?
Speaking of that, this movie also contains one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. My only problem with it is that they did not include Leonard Cohen's version of "Everybody Knows" which served as perfect song to open the movie with. Instead, we have the version by Concrete Blonde which comes on towards the end when Mark makes his last stand against the forces that be. I certainly don't want to take away from Concrete Blonde's cover of the song as they did a great job on it, but Cohen's version is perfect for the overall tone of the movie. It also would have been cool to get some of Cliff Martinez’s film score on the soundtrack as well as I really loved the sound of his music. Still the soundtrack has a lot terrific tracks from The Pixies, Soundgarden, Cowboy Junkies and Sonic Youth.
For me, “Pump Up The Volume” was a godsend. It gave me a character that was dealing with the same problems I dealt with when I was a teenager, and there were very few like him. Most teen movies of that time just left me with a never ending feeling of utter resentment as they featured kids who got to experience things I hoped to experience at that age but didn’t. All the misfits, social rejects and those who felt dejected and rejected need and deserve a movie like “Pump Up The Volume.” After all these years, it remains a movie that is very close to my heart, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.