Allan Moyle’s 1990 cult hit, “Pump Up the Volume” is about teen rebellion, making it akin with most other films about the high school experience.
What’s special about this one is that, in a way both earnest and angry, it instructs us to empower ourselves and make our voice heard. The genre often celebrates the structure of conformity it claims to dissect (by the end of most high school comedies, the uncool kid is now popular, a cynical, shallow victory at best).
“Pump Up the Volume,” by contrast encourages its audience to embrace who they truly are and be unafraid to make declarations of truth.
Christian Slater stars as Mark, an only child and recent transplant from “back east,” who has moved with parents to Paradise Hills, Arizona. As a high schooler at Hubert H. Humphrey High, Mark is a painfully shy introvert in class and a non-entity to his classmates.
At night, however, he airs a pirate radio show as “Happy Harry Hard-On,” doing a one-man show (sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours) where he vents his daily frustrations, reads letters, takes calls and insults high school authority figures. Recording live in his basement and using a voice modulator to keep his secret identity intact, “Harry” is vulgar, provocative and an instant hit with his enthralled classmates.
Writer/director Moyle’s film begins with a tracking shot of suburban homes at night, with Slater’s pleasingly nasally and ultimately seductive voice droning over the airwaves. His off-color monolog pulls us in, as does Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” which becomes the film’s unofficial theme.
“Harry” is a high school Howard Stern, or a teenage Alan Berg, depending on your knowledge of controversy-baiting radio talk show hosts who inspired incendiary films.
In a touch that, again, feels contemporary, Mark hides behind anonymity (and a careful back-up plan if caught) in order to present his thoughts without censorship or compromise.
“Harry’s” voice unites all the high school clicks, who are presented with honesty and through vivid casting. Everyone here seems the appropriate age, as the actors evoke the cockiness, painful insecurities and earnest outrage of the teen experience.
Compare this to “Porky’s Revenge,’ where a “high school senior” is clearly in his 30s.
Over time, “Pump Up the Volume” becomes a love story, albeit an unconventional one. Mark’s Clark Kent-like outward self (Slater is surprisingly endearing and believable at conveying vulnerability) attracts the attention of Nora (played by a wonderful Samantha Mathis), a free spirit who flirts on the air with “Harry,” is obsessed with learning his identity and is drawn to Mark’s quiet and suspicious behavior.
The analog, pre-internet technology of “pirate radio,” “stealing the airwaves” and the FCC chasing down a signal on foot is old school. However, the idea that we long for interaction, connectivity and for our voices to be heard in a time of outrage is both timeless and entirely right now.
A generation earlier portrayed the outbreak of Rock and Roll music as a trojan horse to establish teenage expression and a change in social values. Here, Moyle’s film is set in the time when Rap music infiltrated white suburbia and the burnout of the Me Generation. When “Harry” plays a notorious track by the Beastie Boys or blares Was (Was Not)’s “Hi Dad, I’m in Jail” over the airwaves, it knowingly speaks to the era of the early days of Parental Advisory Explicit Content labels.
You get the sense that, post- “Happy Harry Hard-On,” these teens will be rebel by listening to tapes of 2 Live Crew and buying the Body Count “Cop Killer” CD.
If there’s a flaw, it’s the contrast to how well developed the teenagers are: the adults are downright cartoonish. The grown-ups all express parental fears and in-the-open hypocrisy, as Mark’s parents are hippies-turned yuppies and the principal is a power-mad dictator.
These figures represent the conservative values of the day, as the adults are threatened by the music of Ice-T, put off by vulgarity, uncomfortable at addressing teen-relevant topics that are unrelatable to them and fearful of their authority being challenged.
Had these characters been given more depth, it might have established an intriguing dichotomy between the social structure of the students and their teachers. Ellen Greene, Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors” and previously appearing in “Talk Radio” (a fictional take on Berg’s last broadcast) appears as the lone sympathetic teacher. She’s still under-used and the character is written out of the movie.
Anyone older than 20 is basically a variation on Paul Gleason’s Mr. Vernon from “The Breakfast Club” (“You mess with the bull, the get the horns!).
Satire is fine but with buffoons like these, it’s a wonder “Harry” doesn’t run for Governor of Arizona and have his high school demolished.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency is never addressed, as this avoids overt politics. The teens speak out against ANY adult who aims to exercise unjust authority over them. The dimwitted adults aren’t punished for being conservative -- it’s their hive-mind mentality and gleeful willingness to abuse their power that makes them villains.
“Harry” declares “I’m a member of the Why Bother generation,” a nice nod to his membership in Gen-X. At times, the neutrality of the timeline confuses, as “Harry” says at one point, “We’re in the middle of this tired decade.”
Later, he says, “Welcome to the 90s.” Okay, so its 1990 and not ’85, though his point does come across -- the excess of the ’80s and the fears it brought (namely nuclear warfare) was baring down on Gen-X.
The strength of the film is in its message, crafted by Moyle’s screenplay and a fantastic turn by Slater, whose award-worthy, spellbinding performance (particularly during his sessions as “Harry”) is among his best work. Moyle went on to direct the studio films “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” (which is as tacky and forgettable as the title) and “Empire Records” (great soundtrack, terrible movie), with his later works being low budget indies.
The ending settles for feel-good, John Hughes-like plotting. Despite this, the takeaway isn’t canned uplift but the need for activism, personal expression and freedom of speech.
Being a child of the ’80s, I have a built-in fondness for much of Hughes’ work (specifically “Some Kind of Wonderful”), though many of his films haven’t aged particularly well (for every “The Breakfast Club,” there’s the clunky “Pretty in Pink” and the hideously dated “Sixteen Candles”).
A scene in “Pump Up the Volume” that seems especially daring and smart is a phone conversation “Harry” has with a gay teen. There’s nothing condescending about how the character is written and performed.
While the 1988 “Heathers” (Slater’s breakout role) still has bite and style, its dark sense of humor allows for an ironic detachment from its subject matter. “Heathers” is daring for addressing teen suicide, though it’s more a commentary on clueless social response and etiquette towards teen suicide than a film wanting to directly and meaningfully deal with the issue.
“Pump Up the Volume” leans in on the final moments of the sad, sweet Malcolm Kaiser (played by a standout Anthony Lucero), who declares his suicide to “Harry” both by letter and on his show. Moyle doesn’t shy away from the heartbreak of his passing and its effect on his classmates.
While the adults are constantly in caricature mode, the anarchy of these 80’s-era teens feel real. These kids are sick to death of hypocrisy, censorship and having to fulfill adult expectations. In a different era, they would be the antagonists of a “Teenagers- Can They Be Trusted?” newsreel but here, under an unfair and cruel high school system, their rebellion is messy but justified.
An ability to seize the airwaves is portrayed not as an overstep of responsibility but a means of communication that everyone should partake in. “Harry” exclaims, “I am everywhere, I am in every single one of you.” Even more on the nose, he announces, “Welcome to Radio Free America!” Mark’s evolution of shedding the skin of “Harry” is realized in the final voiceover, as young men and women are heard announcing their true selves on their own version of Mark’s show.
Their reinvention as voices freely traveling through the night, finding an audience and creating a fanbase, is the start of either their newfound persona or a revolution. Either way, carrying on Mark’s legacy of personal expression is colored as a victory.
In modern ways, Moyle’s film speaks to our tendency to allow a faceless avatar to deliver our ideas and provide our speaking voice. “Harry” may be an act, but he’s an extension of Mark, both his id and the passion building inside him. Mark’s journey is to finally free himself of “Harry,” no longer rely on a façade to express his confrontational ideas and embrace freedom of speech, no matter what the cost.
Most high school movies are about becoming whatever you need to be to win the object of desire, win over the school, etc. This one celebrates young people who learn to be happy with the conflicted, unhappy, afraid and insecure teenagers staring back at them in the mirror.
“Pump Up the Volume” doesn’t celebrate consumerism, the appeal of belonging to shallow clicks or other facades of the high school experience. The film gives a mouthpiece to so-called outsiders and elevates the confidence of those struggling to find out who they truly are. High school movies tend to conclude with a pre-established catharsis, assuring the viewer that going to the prom, having the BEST FRIENDS EVER and being good looking is what ultimately matters.
“Pump Up the Volume” wants to unleash the poet, the wildness, the activist and the fullness of our idiosyncratic selves, fully exposed and embraced, despite our differences.
That’s why it matters.