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Entries in Pump Up the Volume [1990] (1)


Pump Up the Volume (1990) Home Video Review

There's No Stalgia Like Nostalgia, Part One

Thanks to The Emmett Brown Institute for Federal Time/Space Studies, I’ve been given a rare opportunity to participate in a pilot program called “Travel Logs”.  I have no idea how this works, but my contact at the Institute, Dr. Cassius Bailey Freem, assures me that if I write a letter to myself at any previous age, his team will deliver it to that version of me at any point in time that I choose.

I could use this to warn myself of future events or give great stock market advice, but I’m neither regretful nor ambitious; so I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the movies that shaped my worldview from the perspective of someone who’s lived a little.  Today, we’ll visit January 28th, 1991, and talk to a young Me about a film that may have had a bigger impact than all the rest.  Enjoy!

Dear Ian,

I’m a little fuzzy on the chronology, but I’d say you’re smack-dab in the middle of your Christian Slater phase.  It started a little over a year ago with Heathers, and led to an unhealthy mental loop of the Gleaming the Cube theme song.  In a few months, you’ll tack the Will Scarlett action figure from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves delicately to your wall; shortly after that, you’ll come full circle and ask mom for a black trench coat like the one Slater wore in Heathers (and you’ll get it; sort of).  But right now, you’re in the middle of a spiritual revolution, thanks to repeated viewings of Pump Up the Volume—a movie that will help shape your worldview and perpetuate years of bad Jack Nicholson impressions.

There’s nothing wrong with loving the movie, especially at age thirteen.  But—and I know you don’t want to hear this—it’s not perfect, and you really should try to put things into perspective.

Let’s start with the good, though, shall we?  Christian Slater is at his best here.  Even though he’s clearly in his twenties playing sixteen, he makes a convincing awkward high-schooler.  He plays Mark Hunter as an angst-y East Coast transplant struggling to keep it together in a new school, where his ex-hippie dad (Scott Paulin) is the new commissioner.  His coping mechanism is a pirate radio show that he puts on in the basement late at night, on which he blasts the American cultural malaise under the pseudonym Happy Harry Hard-on.

Hard Harry becomes an underground sensation at his school, with kids passing tapes of the show around between classes and spray painting his messages all over campus.  What begins as a fun, deviant few hours of Beastie Boys tunes and gags about chronic masturbation turns serious when Harry reads a letter from a kid named Malcom (Anthony Lucero) who wants to kill himself.  He calls Malcom on the air and, thinking this is just another prank-happy fan, fails to talk him out of blowing his brains out.

The scandal draws the attention of the local media, the cops, and the FCC, who join forces with witchy high school principal Loretta Cresswood (Annie Ross) to shut Harry down.  Meanwhile, Mark encounters another fan, who calls herself the Eat Me Beat Me Lady.  She turns out to be his classmate, Nora (Samantha Mathis), a spunky artist who dresses like something out of Tim Burton’s sketchbook.  This budding relationship and the mounting dread of being found out come to a head in an ending that is honest and dark—but also inspiring.

I remember how surprised you were that the movie took high school seriously, and treated students as young adults with real problems.  The characters in Pump Up the Volume have some theatrical flourishes that make me cringe now, but they deal with heavy, universal issues like suicide, sexual identity, and the fear of being lost in a world that’s too twisted to understand.  Writer/Director Allan Moyle strikes a great balance here, giving us embarrassing images like a young Seth Green wearing ridiculous, long rocker hair and a jean-jacket in one scene, and a teen pouring his heart out about being abused by a gang of closeted jocks in the next.

But I’ve got to be honest with you: watching Pump Up the Volume the other night—even though I’ve seen it probably twenty or more times since I was your age—I was struck by how many problems it has.  Most of these I can attribute to what had to be a very low budget.  For example, did you notice that in every shot of someone listening to the radio in their bedroom, they wear the same clothes throughout the movie?  Keep in mind, the story takes place over the course of a few weeks; so either these kids just had a Radio Listenin’ Wardrobe, or Moyle filmed a few minutes of them looking concerned/happy/confused at their radios and then dropped them into his movie where appropriate (On a related note, you’ve been wondering for months about that cutaway to the two kids riding their bicycles in a circle around a boom box in front of their open garage; I’m sorry to say you’ll never understand what the hell that was about).

There’s also wacky newscaster Shep Sheppard (Clayton Landey), who waffles between being a serious, if not scrupulously dubious journalist, and a cartoon character.  Moyle did such a good job painting the adults of his movie as out of touch and genuinely misguided that to drop this uncalled-for “levity” in their midst is like playing a slide whistle during 9/11 reportage (you’ll get that reference later).

For the most part, the movie is fantastic whenever Harry is talking and playing great music in the basement (all hail Leonard Cohen!); when the Moyle takes us out of the house, things get iffy.  You can blame part of this on the early 90s fashion, and part of it on Moyle, an adult, taking a stab at replicating authentic teen culture (as Harry says, “Anyone over the age of twenty really has no idea.”).  Pump Up the Volume is a 100-minute war between heart, brains, and cheese, with cheese winning far too many battles before succumbing to heart and brains.

Believe it or not, this didn’t kick off the filmmaking revolution you thought it would: Teen-centered entertainment today is more vapid than Saved by the Bell ever was, but it wears lightning-fast dialogue and unlikable characters as a sort of fake I.D.  I sometimes wonder what Pump Up the Volume would be like if it were made today; I don’t think it could be.  While Hard Harry is the forefather of the blogger (you’ll understand that later, too), using technology to blast his rants and fears into the ether, he had the benefit of a captive audience.  Now, everyone has a blog, Web site, or podcast; for every person trying to get a sincere point across, there are twelve million others either making fun of that person or just writing about how Justin Bieber’s hair is a metaphor for the failed Middle East peace talks.

You also don’t have the communal experience of radio today.  I’m not convinced that Moyle’s vision of teenagers hanging out in a field behind the school listening to a talk show was based in reality, but it was more likely then than it would be now.  With the advent of smart phones, iPods and multimedia centers in every room of the house (you’ll love it; trust me), people—especially young people—are more disconnected than ever; even though they claim to be more in-tune with each other via FaceBook and text messaging, the notion of tribalism seems to be waning (along with public courtesy, critical thinking, and the ability to spell).

But don’t be scared: By the time you get to be my age, you’ll have completely missed the technological revolution and will spend a good deal of time catching up (and, in many cases, realizing that catching up is kind of stupid).  For now, enjoy this great little movie and take from it the lessons of challenging authority and realizing that the power of truth and creativity can change the world.

One last thing before I go:  If you want to be spared a crashing end to your Christian Slater phase, just make a clean break after Robin Hood comes out.  Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t see Kuffs next year.