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 I became very antisocial and withdrawn as I was so frustrated and depressed at this situation I was thrown into.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 He is a shy and withdrawn kid, clearly not happy about his situation.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.