– Summary –
Director : Allan Moyle
Year Of Release : 1990
Principal Cast : Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Annie Ross, Robert Schenkkan, Scott Paulin, Cheryl Pollack, Seth Green, Anthony Lucero, James Hampton, Lala Sloatman, Ahmet Zappa.
Approx Running Time : 105 Minutes
Synopsis: A young high-school student operating a pirate radio station is hunted down by school authorities and the FCC for his brazen, controversial and anarchic viewpoints.
What we think : A terrific teen rebellion flick, still packs a punch even today, several decades after initial release. Slater has never been better, even though he’s surrounded by a cast of fairly amateurish talent giving their all, but the central themes of the film always shine through.
I had completely forgotten about this film until my friend Dan over at Top 10 Films included it in one of his lists. Pump Up The Volume was – nay, is – one of my all time favorite films from the late 80’s and early 90’s, and it spoke to me at the precise time in my life when things were most confusing: my high school years. As Dan mentions in his list, it’s a terrific Teenage Rebellion film, and although the clothes and cars may have dated since, the core themes of the film remain true. It speaks to teenagers everywhere – Volume deals with themes of isolation, depression, suicide, rebelling against authority, and a sense of self worth, among others. The script may be somewhat preachy in parts, but the essence of the film, the beating heart director Moyle gives it, transcends the era in which it was created. It’s a teen film for the ages, faults and all, and if you’re reading this wondering why you’ve never heard of this film before, then go out and find it.
School student by day, pirate radio sock-jock by night, Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) lives a shy and retiring life in a deadbeat suburb of Arizona. He has no friends at school, his parents don’t understand him, and he feels misunderstood and isolated from a society which deems him unworthy of existence – his internal rage at his situation manifests itself with his radio broadcasts under the pseudonym of Hard Harry, a character through which he can give voice to his opinions while remaining anonymous to anyone who may be listening. The school Mark goes to is run by the malicious and vile headmistress Loretta Cresswood (Annie Ross), who uses her status to fatuously expel any student she deems “unworthy”, in order to maintain her school’s grade point average (which leads to more funding). She is aided by the toadyish school counselor David Deaver (Robert Schenkkan). As Harry’s broadcasts become more popular with the increasingly more disenfranchised student body, the more he becomes the focus of the authority figures to try and stop – Cresswood, together with an outraged parent body, as well as the FCC, band together to track down the ranting radio jock and get him off the air. One bright young girl, Nora (Samantha Mathis) manages to track down the true identity of Hard Harry, and confronts Mark into revealing his true self to her – she pushes him to continue his work as Harry as a beacon of hope to his fellow students through their darkest hours: when a student suicides as an indirect result of Harry’s words, Mark begins to question to true motives for his actions, until he realizes the true impact he can have as a voice of chaos in the insanity.
Rebellion films have long been a staple of cinema, particularly since James Dean captured an epochal feeling of teen angst in Rebel Without A Cause, and when you hold up the genre to the spotlight, hopefully somewhere Pump Up The Volume gets a bit of time in the sun. Perhaps not as visually brilliant as Rebel, nor as commercially cool as The Breakfast Club, Pump Up The Volume more than makes up for its visual shortcomings with a punchy, sharply written script and two winning central performances by Slater and Mathis. Directed with a sense of cool by Allan Moyle, the film’s opening sequence remains a favorite of mine for evoking a feeling in the most visual manner possible – the use of Leonard Cohen’s tune Everybody Knows, coupled with the dingy, shadowy world of Hard Harry’s bedroom-set radio station (which, I might add, I tried to emulate in my own bedroom for a while) drags us right into the wrist-slitting emotion we need to get to for this film to work. It’s one instance where sound and picture work in perfect harmony at the start of a film. Moyle’s razor-sharp script does have a few problems, I must admit, when you view this film in the cold light of day, and the inherent low-budget nature of the production is evident in the way it’s shot and set, but for a film that speaks directly to teenagers about their problems, in a way they can understand, Volume ticks all the right boxes. Moyle captures the teen angst zeitgeist with such precision it’s like he was one when he made this film. Understanding what makes teenagers tick is a key ingredient in making a film like this work well.
Moyle’s script delves into many issues affecting teens around the world – and many of those issues are perhaps even more problematic and prevalent than they were when this film came out back in 1990. Teen depression is touched on, as is suicide in one confronting sequence, and where the Moyle could have made it more a melodrama than a straight drama, he never shies away from the truth of the matter. This, I think, is the film’s central positive – it never strays from the message it’s trying to impart at all, even if it’s the most painful message possible. Where Moyle’s script does tend to fall flat is in some of the dialogue, which can tend to feel forced and awkward at times as the obviously young cast struggle to deliver the goods performance wise. Christian Slater delivers what I consider to be his best performance in a film (to date!) as Hard Harry, and his long monologues into the microphone are among the most memorable in modern film, even if they occasionally border into genre cliche. Slater’s ably abetted by then-newcomer Samantha Mathis, who positively glows in her role as the sexy, smart, not-stupid-to-fall-for-your-crap Nora, and aside from a few moments where her acting naivete shows, she absolutely nails the role. Veteran performer Annie Ross delivers a ghastly school principal (aren’t they all, though?) in Loretta Cresswood, Hard Harry’s chief enemy and focus for his rage, and of the entire cast, it’s she who holds the dramatic narrative together. Without her spot-on performance, her character could have simply been a generic Film Villain; as written, she certainly comes across that way, and yet Ross manages to make her seem somehow more human than she appears, with an “I did it for the kids” vulnerability that prevents simple caricature. Keep an eye out for Start Trek actor Robert Schenkkan as David Deaver, who produces one of the films funniest moments when a recording of his voice is sampled into a music track and played around the school PA system.
The film is essentially a mix of ensemble and monologue work, with the school student body portrayed by relative screen newcomers in vignettes as they listen to Harry speak making up the ensemble, and Slater’s vitriolic Harry as the monologue. Moyle manages to make the interaction between Harry and his listeners more engaging than it might seem on the page, with reactions to his words almost an applause Harry can hear as he spouts off against the Establishment. While the majority of the film is Harry talking into the darkness, by the end, it’s not about him. It’s about those he’s speaking to. Moyle pulls no punches with his script, as the authorities close in on Harry and his world starts to come undone. The film, perhaps apropos to its themes, never looks for the upbeat moments with any alacrity, rather it is content to wallow in much the same feelings of depression many of the characters have. This isn’t a negative, don’t get me wrong. It’s actually a powerful statement of cinema that Moyle allows the film to spiral, spiral downwards without any sense of finality – the initial closing credits play over the legacy Hard Harry leaves on his town, and although perhaps not quite as powerful for today’s audience, certainly remains iconic for youth as far as breaking free from perceived constraints.
Yes, much of the look and feel of Pump Up The Volume might seem anachronistic now, a lot like The Breakfast Club and other teen films of its ilk, but the narrative and themes the film provides remain as perceptive today as they did then. Perhaps the Facebook generation may face pressures of a different technological age, but feelings of depression and exclusion from society remains a major issue facing the youth of today. Pump Up The Volume is not a panacea for the problems of the world, but it’s a truly remarkable – and instantly effective – look into the psyche of troubled teens in any part of the world. Worth a look!