Pump Up the Volume


    In the eighties and early nineties, there was a glut of films being made about the teenage experience. Many of these (including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Heathers, The Breakfast Club and many others) are very good, and several (including the horrid Can’t Buy Me Love) are really quite terrible. Still, there are only a few that really dig deep into the teenage experience, to highlight the reality of being a teenager: the feeling of alienation, the despair, the utter loneliness and desolation that a teen can feel.

    One thing that director/screenwriter Allan Moyle captures incredibly well is the anger, guilt and frustration that many (okay, probably all teenagers feel). Pump Up the Volume centers around a young man named Mark who also happens to run a pirate radio station, and is becoming a big sensation amongst his peers on the airwaves as his on-air persona Hard Harry Hard-On. Mark is painfully shy at his new high school, but when he’s on the radio, he is the voice of those who don’t have a voice. This, of course, really pisses off the administration.

Mark resents being viewed as the voice, or really being viewed as anything noble or important. He, whether he likes it or not, represents his peers, even though at school he never talks and eats alone on the stairwell. In a harrowing scene, he speaks to a student who’s planning on killing himself. We know where this scene’s going, and then Moyle dares to take the scene, and the film, to unexpected places. The burden placed on Mark is huge, and lots of the film centers around the question of the whether or not he can handle this responsibility.

Christian Slater was becoming well known in the late eighties (probably mostly for his strong comic work in the aforementioned Heathers,) but I think it was his performance here that really established him as a star. It is a terrific performance, he is strong-willed, confident and angry as Harry, but shy and nervous as Mark. And his sneaky, shark-like voice, which has a faint tinge of Jack Nicholson, helps sell Harry as a legitimate radio personality.

Mark develops a sweet relationship with Nora (Samantha Mathis in her film debut), a fiery spirit who uncovers his true identity, and helps him with his crisis of conscience. Pump Up the Volume is a good film, but I found the last third got a little silly, with the help of a car chase (was this a requirement of every movie made in the 90s?). Also, Mark going up against the school is great cinematic fodder, but was Moyle making it too easy by making the administration really, really corrupt and by making the principal and vice principal clearly satanic?

There’s a subplot with Ellen Greene as an English Teacher who, I guess, inspires Mark that doesn’t ever resolve itself (it is pretty clear, though, that Mark’s teacher knows exactly who he is). If you’re paying attention, you’ll see Seth Green (years from the Austin Powers films) as a student. The film does use a couple Leonard Cohen songs, to great effect.

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