Pump Up The Volume (1990) — High schooler rules the pirate airwaves

“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 stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there.”

Justin’s rating: This is more biographical than I care to admit.

Justin’s review: There’s a phase in our lives when rebellion comes as natural to us as breathing. We kick against the goad, stick it to the man, push back against the rules, and seethe under authority. Usually — but not always — this comes to a peak in our high school and college years. We make our little futile gestures, try out hairstyles that’ll drive our parents crazy, and enjoy super-angry music.

But even when we get past our rebellious phase, there’s still a part of it that lingers. That’s the part that makes you cheer on the underdog in movies when they get one over on the bullies or bosses or what have you. And if there was ever a movie that tapped into both the immediate satisfaction and long-term pointlessness of rebelliousness, it’s Pump Up The Volume.

By day, Mark (Christian Slater) is a meek high schooler who just moved to the Arizona suburbs and feels ignored there. By night, Mark becomes “Hard Harry,” a mouthy pirate radio DJ who unleashes his angst in growly speeches alongside edgy music. It’s an outlet for the complicated feelings that he as a teen is wrestling with. We’ve all been there.

As Hard Harry starts to get discovered by the teens of the town, he becomes a legend who’s giving a voice to what a whole lot of people are feeling. He offers advice, puts on some jams, and tries to evade the FCC that attempts to track down this rebel disc jockey.

Mark finds his life complicated by Nora (Samantha Mathis), a listener who figures out that he and Hard Harry are one and the same. The two push to utilize Hard Harry’s influence to make a difference in the community, especially as a number of authority-type figures are being almost cartoonishly oppressive against kids who need a little more understanding and a little less punishment.

It’s hard to imagine this exact scenario taking place today, what with teens glued to a rebel radio show and all. I mean, the internet is there and everyone with an ounce of opinion has YouTube and Tik Tok and, erm, movie blogs to vent.

But the spirit of this movie is still alive, because at its core it’s about miscommunication. The parents and teachers aren’t really talking with the teens and vice-versa. Hard Harry is, in his weird and sometimes crude fashion, functioning as a conversation starter.

And this town needs a good conversation. The serio-comic stylings of Hard Harry turn straight-up serious when a kid calls in with a suicide threat — a threat that he then goes through with. This makes Harry the number one enemy for the community’s adults, but perhaps also the most influential voice to guiding other kids to some actual hope. You can see the moment in the movie where Slater’s face goes from gleeful to “oh crap” when the kid admits his real intentions, and I guess it’s here that Mark, not Harry, starts to emerge as a more mature entity.

I’ll admit that I used to watch Pump Up The Volume all the time during some of my more rebellious years. It just felt good, back then, to live vicariously through this flick. Today, it’s not where I am anymore, and I can’t deny that some of the characterizations and dialogue come off as, let’s say, not quite believable. But I still admire the spirit of what’s being attempted.

And hey, if nothing else, Pump Up the Volume has an incredible soundtrack of the era with The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Leonard Cohen, and more. I guess it should, considering the focus on music. It’s not a surprise that Allan Moyle would return to the intersection of angst and music with 1995’s Empire Records.

Pump Up the Volume is so loaded with heavy topics and heartfelt emotion that it connected with a lot of people who discovered this long after it was a blip in movie theaters. Maybe people just need to be heard — or if not heard, then felt.

Didja notice?

  • Well, that’s something we’ll never see again — kids passing around cassette tapes on a bus
  • Mark coming close to hitting his parents with a golf driver in the background
  • Dancing is a privilege in schools
  • Is it just me, or does that blond rebel kid look and sound a bit like Pauly Shore?

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