Why ‘Pump Up the Volume’ Remains My Favorite Teen Movie

Pump Up The Volume movie poster

Of all the movies I have seen about being a teenager, “Pump Up the Volume” is still far and away my favorite. It is also the one which hit me the hardest emotionally as, after seeing all these movies about nerds and jocks fighting each other on school grounds, this one had characters 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 would still come out of it with a smile, a cute boyfriend or girlfriend and some fancy, fancy clothes which made you look oh so incredibly cool. This movie does not exist in that fantasy world, thank goodness, and I would love to see Hollywood produce more movies like it.

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 it was the longest I had ever lived in 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 major upheaval as I had no choice but to move with my parents and away from a place which 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 this moving thing one time too many. I became very antisocial and withdrawn as I was so frustrated and depressed at this situation I was thrown into. For a while, it felt like I could not talk to anybody as I didn’t know what to say. In retrospect, the fact I got through adolescence in one piece seems like a miracle.

“Pump Up the Volume” features a character who 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 which appears to be located 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 He is a shy and withdrawn kid, clearly not happy about his situation.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, a pirate radio DJ who operates an underground station 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 what he is going through. Chaos begins to reign at his high school and the adults work to control the situation, having no idea of what the kids are really going through. This scares Mark 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 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 myself, 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 did, 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 they are not the only ones going through rough times, and to make them see how being a teenager is not always what we expect it 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, he takes a call from a listener who has written him a letter saying he wants to kill himself, and when Harry asks him why, the listener says 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 this fact. Then again, I have no problem with anyone proving me wrong there. I can’t think of another teen movie before this one that dealt with such down-to-earth characters.

A lot of people have complained the adult characters are largely one-dimensional. While I can definitely see some validity in this argument, I also remember seeing these seem people at my 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. 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 just as bad as 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 he turns out to be the students’ savior when upon realizing they need to be heard, 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 as we how much he values the fact everyone has the right to an education.

Another great performance 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 secret identity. 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 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 when he desperately wants to communicate to Nora, and she tries to make him as comfortable as 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 not 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 the adults try to figure out his real identity and shut him down for good. The fact 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 which still stays 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 in the summer of 1990 which was, ironically the summer before I started high school. This movie became one of the things which 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 I hope will continue to grow, and maybe if we’re lucky, there will eventually be a special edition DVD and Blu-ray containing documentaries, trailers, audio commentaries and even music videos. Hey, Criterion Collection, are you listening?

“Pump Up the Volume” also contains one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. My only problem with it is it doesn’t have Leonard Cohen’s version of “Everybody Knows” which serves as the 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 powers that be. I certainly don’t want to take away from their cover of the song as they did a great job on it, but Cohen’s version is perfect fit for Mark’s state of mind. It also would have been cool to get some of Cliff Martinez’s film score on the soundtrack as well as I really loved how it sounded. Still the soundtrack does have 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 who was dealing with the same problems I dealt with when I was a teenager, and there were few, if any other, movies which contained individuals like him. Most teen movies back then just left me with a never-ending feeling of utter resentment as they featured kids who got to experience things I never did and felt robbed of. 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 very close to my heart, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

* * * * out of * * * *

Advertisements

‘It’ Proves To Be one of the Best Stephen King Movies in a Long Time

It teaser poster

It” isn’t just one of my favorite Stephen King novels, it’s also one of my favorite books ever. On one hand, it is a terrifying tale of a malevolent force who takes the form of a clown and feeds on the fearful children living in Derry, Maine. On the other, it is a thoughtful and deeply felt examination of kids who are forced to endure a tougher childhood than anyone ever should. I read King’s massive novel (1,138 pages) back when I was a teenager, and it made me realize it was okay to be different than others. Looking back, it also reminded me of a line of dialogue from one of my all-time favorite movies, “Pump Up the Volume:”

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point. Surviving it is the whole point.”

For those who have read this novel, you can see how it is more about the kids than it is about Pennywise the Dancing (not to mention incredibly vicious) clown. Thank goodness director Andy Muschietti realized this when he came on to direct the long-awaited film version of “It.” While Muschietti delivers the requisite thrills and chills a horror film like this one demands, he keeps a very observant eye on the kids and the conflicts they are forced to endure, and I don’t just mean Pennywise.

The film focuses on the book’s first half when the members of “The Losers’ Club” were suffering the slings and arrows of daily life at school. But while King set this half in the 1950’s, Muschietti moves things up to the 1980’s, a time of Ronald Reagan, calculator watches, New Kids on the Block, and movies like “Gremlins” and “Beetlejuice” which, like “It,” were released by Warner Brothers. This was a decade defined by greed, but for these kids, it was a time of innocence which would be destroyed for them far too quickly.

“It” was previously made into a wonderfully entertaining television miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace, but Muschietti lets you know right from the start how the censorship of American television was not going to apply here. Little Georgie Denbrough suffers a most terrible fate when Pennywise bites his arm off and drags his body into the sewer, and even if you know this event is coming, it is still chilling to witness as this is the kind of thing movies typically avoid showing. From there, I couldn’t help but remain in a state of heightened anxiety as while I knew what was going to happen, the safety of network television was not around to reassure me about the horrors I was going to witness.

The misery and sufferings of The Losers’ Club feel much more unnerving on the silver screen than on television. It’s especially galling to see poor Beverly Marsh get wet garbage poured all over her in the bathroom as she has become the victim of unsubstantiated rumors that she is promiscuous. But judging from the moment she when she puts her backpack over her head for protection, she has been dealing with this stigma for a very long time. Or how about Ben Hanscom, the overweight new kid in town who has zero signatures in his yearbook, one of the saddest sights the audience is forced to take in here. While these kids’ sufferings don’t feel as raw as what Sissy Spacek endured in “Carrie,” it’s still easy to feel for these kids who have been cast out of what is perceived to be the realm of normal.

Heck, even their parents prove to be an emotionally distant, and if they are not, they instead prove to be ridiculously overprotective. Beverly’s father seems to care for her a little too much, and this care seems to imply crimes more insidious than our imaginations can ever handle. Eddie Kaspbrak’s mother is determined to keep him safe from any and every germ planet Earth has to offer, and at times she threatens to be as scary as Pennywise due her raising her son as if he is the reincarnation of Howard Hughes. As for William Denbrough, things will never be the same between him and his parents following the death of his brother Georgie.

There’s some passage in the Bible which says God only gives you what you can handle, but the members of The Losers’ Club have far more than anyone should ever be made to handle, and this is made clear before Pennywise begins to disrupt their unfairly depressing lives. As a result, they need each other to get from one day to the next, and the strength they have together allows them to be a formidable force against Pennywise. Muschietti’s attention to these kids’ struggles makes this film very effective as we come to care for them deeply, and this makes their stand against this homicidal clown all the more involving.

Speaking of Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard makes him into the freakiest clown and scarier than any clown Rod Zombie could come up with. Whereas Tim Curry’s Pennywise was at first approachable and then murderous, Skarsgard’s is vicious right from the get go whether the kids realize it or not. Even before those set of jaws come out, Skarsgard more than reminds the audience of how clowns have always been creepy, and he makes Pennywise into the clown who gleefully inhabits all our nightmares.

So where do I rank this particular Stephen King adaptation among the many already unleashed on the public? Hard to say. It is easily one of the best King adaptations in a while, but it is not as scary as “The Shining” or “Carrie.” This is not a motion picture filled with jump scares every 5 minutes as Muschietti is more in creating something which is infinitely chilling and suspenseful. What results is a highly entertaining movie which never feels like a simple remake of the miniseries. He is also blessed with a terrific cast of actors who are not afraid to embrace the depressing natures of their characters. I just hope none of them have to deal with this shit in real life.

I’m also thrilled no one tried to fit the whole book into one movie. There’s no way you could have done that without messing everything up. There was already talk of a sequel long before this movie even opened, and this is a sequel I am more eager to see than any “Star Wars” movie which has yet to be released. It’ll be interesting to see how The Losers’ Club will transition from childhood to adulthood as they attempt to put the past behind them. But as Peter Gabriel once sang, “Nothing fades as fast the future. Nothing clings like the past.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *