Man, if there was a movie that really showed how I felt sometimes as a teenager, than today’s movie would probably be it. The first time I saw anything about this movie, it was a preview on the PPV channels years and years ago. When it came on one of the premium channels, I watched it, then immediately taped it the next time it came on. Over the years, this has been one of my goto movies when I am in a down mood and I have wound up buying the actual VHS tape to replace the recorded copy and then the DVD when that wore out. So lets get right into today’s movie, Pump Up The Volume.
The plot: In a suburb of Phoenix, AZ, students start arriving at Hubert H. Humphrey High School and several of them are talking about a pirate radio station hosted by a man named “Happy Harry Hard-On” that comes on every night at 10. Meanwhile, one of the teachers, Mr. Murdock, pulls aside two students and escorts them to the principal’s office. That night, Hard Harry, who is actually a student named Mark Hunter, comes on air and begins complaining about his life while talking about what he finds wrong with society, while occasionally pretending to masturbate so as to stay in character for the amusement of his growing audience. Finishing the show for the night, Mark heads upstairs and after grabbing a drink from the fridge, he heads into his father’s office and starts going through some of his files, as he is the new county school commissioner. The next day, a tape of Harry’s show is played during a teacher’s meeting. Meanwhile, Mark is returning a book to the library and Nora, the student working at the library and who shares a class with him, starts talking with him and after he leaves, she considers him a suspect for being Hard Harry but decides against him, thinking him too shy. That night, Mark goes on the air and after playing a quick song, reads a memo that David Deaver, the school’s guidance councilor, where he suggests expelling a girl named Cheryl Biggs for being pregnant. Mark calls Deaver and starts questioning him about the memo, which upsets Deaver and he quickly hangs up. Mark begins reading some fan letters, calling one of the writers when they leave their phone number on the letter. As he reads a letter from a frequent writer known as “The Eat-Me-Beat-Me Lady”, Nora is shown to be listening to the show and quoting the letter as he reads it, revealing herself to be the one that wrote it. Mark then reads a letter from a student named Malcolm who asks if he should kill himself, signing the letter “I’m serious” and leaving a phone number for Mark to call. Mark calls Malcolm and talks to him for a bit and when Malcolm says that he is all alone, Mark admits that he didn’t talk to anyone outside of teachers and sits by himself at lunch everyday. Malcolm hangs up and Mark tries calling him back but Malcolm has the phone off the hook and Mark ends up ending the show shortly afterwards, with his final line being “Sleep tight Mr. Serious. Maybe you will feel better tomorrow.” The next day during lunch, Nora wanders around the school and notices Mark sitting by himself and starts talking to him, believing him to be Hard Harry. When the teachers announce that Malcolm killed himself, Mark takes the news especially hard. Leaving school, he heads to his P.O.Box to get his mail and finds another letter from “The Eat-Me-Beat-Me Lady” and starts reading it. As he finishes, he is confronted by Nora, who had followed him and admits to being “The Eat-Me-Beat-Me Lady”. Nora tries telling him that it wasn’t his fault for what happened to Malcolm but Mark runs off. During dinner, Mark’s parents ask if he knew Malcolm and ask if he wants to speak to a councilor but Mark gets upset with them and heads down to his room. After watching a news report about Malcolm’s wake, Mark goes on the air and, feeling guilty, apologizes to Malcolm for not trying more or at least not telling him not to kill himself. Mark says he is quitting his show and signs off, causing Nora and the other students listening to get upset, but Mark quickly signs back on. He then talks to his listeners about how suicide seems like an easy answer to their problems but instead of suicide, people should confront their problems or do something crazy. Many of the students head to the school and begin having a party there while some kids vandalize the local park and Paige Woodward, a “model” student, places some of her stuff in the microwave and watches as it explodes. Mark reads a letter and calls the student that wrote it, who tells the story about how he was humiliated by some guys for being gay. Several people call the police about the show and some of the police have different thoughts on how to handle the situation. The next day, Loretta Creswood, the school’s principal, starts getting more draconian in her measures to ensure she has the best school and announces a emergency PTA meeting to discuss the issue. When Nora tells Mark about what happened with Paige, he starts to realize that things are getting out of hand, a thought made more prevalent when he heads to his P.O. Box and finds the police there. During the school meeting, several of the parents start laying the blame on Hard Harry but as Loretta tries to keep control, Paige enters the room and walks towards the podium. As Loretta tries to stop her, Paige tells the parents that Harry is not the problem but is trying to get people to realize that there is something wrong with the school and says that half of the students are on one form of probation or another while the other half are too scared to be themselves. As she leaves, the news cameras try talking to her but she tells Harry not to listen to everyone and stay on the air, then heads out to the field where all of the other students are waiting for Harry to come on. Mark leaves the meeting and starts burning the letters he has received when Nora shows up. Nora tries to get Mark to talk to her, saying he started something and can’t just walk away from it but Mark tells her he can’t talk to her. Mark goes on the air briefly but when his parents start knocking on the door, he is forced to turn it off. When he lets his parents in the room, they question what he was doing, believing he is Hard Harry, but Nora pops up from behind the couch and says that Mark was talking to her. She walks out the sliding door and after his parents leave, Mark goes back on. He then talks about the emergency meeting that was called to discuss him and he calls David Deaver again, only to learn that his call was traced. As the police head out to arrest him, he informs his listeners that he is all right as the police are heading to the home of a couple whose phone line he was using. Finishing up the show, he walks outside to find Nora waiting for him there and the two start talking and just before they kiss, the are forced to hide as the police drop off Mark’s neighbors and Nora leaves shortly after. The next day, Mark meets up with Nora at school and after a quick kiss, they start walking along the campus towards class. When Mark sees all of the graffiti with his sayings on the school, he starts to get uneasy and argues with Nora about whether he should keep doing the show before walking away. Murdock escorts Nora and some other students to Loretta’s office and later starts punching a former student that Loretta had expelled. When Jan Emerson, another teacher, helps to break up the fight and demands answers from Loretta about Murdock’s actions, Loretta fires her. Mark goes to apologize to Nora, who tells him that she has been expelled and points out the F.C.C. trucks that are there to track down his broadcast position. She runs off and before he can catch her, Mark is stopped by Jan, who tells him she was fired and wishes him luck. As Mark’s father Brian has a meeting with Loretta and some of the other teachers, Jan sneaks into Loretta’s office and grabs some of the files that Loretta has on some of the students. As people prepare to listen for Hard Harry’s broadcast, Mark is in his room making some modifications to his equipment. As the time counts down to 10, the students are disappointed when Hard Harry does not come on the air right away. Meanwhile, Mark sneaks into Nora’s room and apologizes and asks for her help to finish what he started. He takes her outside and shows her that he wired his equipment to his mom’s jeep and as Nora starts driving, Mark goes on the air. As the students all celebrate, the F.C.C. trucks go out to try and triangulate Mark’s position. As they continue to drive around and broadcast, Mark starts reading out names of students who were expelled by Loretta. As Brian, Loretta, Murdock, and Deaver are listening to the broadcast, Jan approaches them and hands Brian Loretta’s files and explains what she has done. Loretta says that everything she did was for the good of the school and she stands by her policy but Brian says it is criminal and suspends her. As they F.C.C. and police close in on Mark and Nora, Nora goes off road and ends up damaging the harmonizer that disguises his voice. Seeing the students all gathered at the school, Mark starts talking in his real voice and calls out to all the kids that the world is theirs but they have to seize it for themselves. The police finally arrest Mark and Nora and as they are lead into a police van, several students, and Jan, are shocked to see that Mark is Hard Harry. Just before he is locked up, Mark turns to the crowd and shouts out, “Talk hard.” before the doors are closed. As the movie ends, several voices are heard as more students start talking out on their own pirate radio stations to try and help other kids.
Pump Up The Volume met with mostly praise from the critics, holding a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, many of the critics praised Christian Slater’s performance, the soundtrack, and the movie’s general tone. While a soundtrack for the movie was released, not every song used in the movie was featured on the soundtrack but one song in particular, “The Scenario” by The Beastie Boys, was never given an official release, having been cut from their debut cd(a fact that Mark actually comments on in the movie), and only available on bootleg recordings. The movie did not actually make much at the box office, only earning $11.5 million, but did become more of a cult hit when it hit the video market.
This probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I love this movie, mainly because it kind of touches more on the darker side of being a teenager. Christian Slater (Mark) did a terrific job as the lead while Samantha Mathis (Nora), Annie Ross (Loretta), and Ellen Greene (Jan) did equally good jobs. The story was great on two fronts; the overlying theme focusing on some of the more troubling issues that face teenagers and how they deal with them, as well as the main movie theme of the principal maintaining her school’s reputation at any cost, in spite of the detrimental affects on the students. The music in the movie was great and just as varied as the musical taste of most teenagers. The one thing I didn’t like is that the soundtrack did not feature the Leonard Cohen version of “Everybody Knows”, which was the opening theme song for Hard Harry’s show, but the Concrete Blonde cover, which was used during his final broadcast. Granted, this is not a complaint about the movie itself but the soundtrack. A great movie from the 90’s that still holds up and makes for some great movie watching.
Rating: 5 out of 5