Talk Hard. Steal the Air.
There are teen movies I saw and liked as a teen, but upon a nostalgia viewing I think "Was I so shallow? This is maudlin crap!" Pump Up The Volume is not one of those movies. Watching it as an adult makes me appreciate it even more. Teen movies are not about special effects and they typically have small budgets. They should be character and story driven, and should give voice to teen concerns in a believable way. Pump Up The Volume delivers. The casting is masterful, the story engaging, the characters realistic, and the message timeless.
Facts of the Case
At Hubert H. Humphrey High School, tension is simmering. On the surface things look okay. Yet students are being placed on probation and expelled for the most trivial infractions. The studentry is on edge, having to deal with a gauntlet of teen issues while avoiding the attention of a mercenary high school staff led by a corrupt principal.
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), the son of the new Commissioner of Education, reluctantly moves into town. Shy and withdrawn but keenly aware, he expresses his discontent via a pirate radio station. As Happy Harry Hard-on he rants, raves, and rails against high school and the world, armed with confidential information pilfered from his father's desk. He touches a nerve, and his peers respond to this edgy stranger's broadcasts. No one knows who is behind the personae of Happy Harry Hard-on. He crosses social lines and speaks to the student body.
Mark is misunderstood by his parents and generally ignored by his schoolmates, except for the delightful Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis), who begins to suspect his identity. Meanwhile, a chain of dramatic events at the school enrages the parents and administration, who point their finger at Happy Harry Hard-on. Mark has to decide whether to continue the pirate broadcasts and see his message through, despite increased scrutiny by the authorities.
Pump Up The Volume is like a high school play given the platinum treatment. The casting director should be immediately promoted because the performances of the main characters carry the film. Though over a decade old, the monologues spouted off by Slater are still relevant. The teen issues flirt with but avoid triteness.
Christian Slater has said that Mark Hunter was his favorite role. He goes full-bore as the radical voice of Harry Hard-on and is convincing as a withdrawn social phobic. He manages to be truly rebellious without relying on alcohol or violence. This guy is all about the message: the frustration with high school, the system, politicians, suburbs, strip malls, and being young. He is relentlessly jaded but compassionate with his listeners.
Samantha Mathis is charmingly pesky as Nora. She commands the camera with her vitality and spirit. Her chemistry with Slater is unmistakable—sparks leap off of the screen and the apprehension surrounding the first and second kiss almost make my palms sweat.
The secondary characters are one dimensional, but it works. These are real-looking kids and parents, not glamorized Hollywood extras. Pump Up The Volume relies on stereotypes but avoids clichés. I went to high school with several of these people. I think I ate lunch next to Mark Hunter, and I wish Nora Diniro had hounded me.
Brisk pacing drives the story. You feel Mark's conflicting emotions as he struggles with his anonymous popularity. Throughout, the scenarios are believable and the story compelling.
Happy Harry's monologues are just flat out funny and rebellious. It is great to sit in the broadcast booth of Mark's pirate station and watch him go off. I'm amazed at how descriptive the film can be with a minimal budget. For example, Slater's character is established through an extended camera pan over a collection of paraphernalia around the basement, including a wind-up penis, a smoking cigarette, various political slogans, and an allegorical iguana. We haven't even seen Slater yet, but we've heard him rant and seen his personal effects, so we know whom we're dealing with.
The music is well integrated into the movie, and sounds great. Looking at the song list is deceptive; they use the songs in creative ways. Mood, baby, mood.
Finally, the story. This teen movie is almost entirely original. There is a reason to rebel, and the tribulations of youth are weaved throughout. The romance is effective. Mark's relationship with his parents is refreshingly dysfunctional because it is so realistic. And in the end, I felt energized by the message.
Current teen movies could learn a lot from this flick. Take the time to set up the characters. Don't portray a caricature of rebellion and youth. Pump Up The Volume has no wild, unrealistic parties, no slick dance numbers, no hammed-up clique wars, no elaborate practical jokes. No bad-boy party fiend whose role is to corrupt the naïve. There is a story, told with many voices, that taps into the conflict of youth. Subtlety is the game here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a point in the film where Happy Harry Hard-on entreats his listeners to go crazy, show the world some attitude. This explosion of attitude consists primarily of dancing and giggling in place, jumping off of picnic tables, throwing stuff, and other illicit mayhem. Incongruently, it also entails a bunch of kids running through the streets with a giant penis. The dancing in place seems kind of weak, although that's probably what most people would do. The penis thing is just strange and unbelievable. Fortunately, one character takes his words to heart…look out for that scene.
I've generously granted this movie an 85 for audio because the music is great and seamless, the radio broadcasts carry the film, and there are neat sound effects here and there. However, some real sonic issues stand out. Mark Hunter is supposedly using a voice disguiser in his broadcasts, but they sound distinctively Slateresque to me. At times you get the impression of distortion in his voice, but it could just as easily be due to the broadcast itself. Commit, people! If it is supposed to be a voice disguiser, give me Betty Boop or James Earl Jones, not Christian Slater sans decongestant.
Helicopters sound really good. You can pretty much count on the air-splitting staccato thrum of whirring helicopter blades. Yet the helicopters in this soundtrack are anemic. Even the canned helicopter sounds in TV shows like Airwolf and Blue Thunder put these to shame.
Which brings me to canned sound effects. This movie uses a lot of them. In the climactic chase scene, I thought to myself "I've heard these police car sirens before. Dukes of Hazzard, right?"
The video is no picnic either. The image is grainy throughout, with frequent dust and scratches. This picture was shot using lower grade film and you can tell.
The extras are sparse: trailer and filmographies. Samantha Mathis was so good that I've browsed her bio several times, just to reassure myself that she showed up in later films.
Fortunately, I didn't watch Pump Up The Volume for a sound and video experience. I watched it for subversive diatribes and Slater/Mathis vibes. This film occupies the upper echelon of teen flicks. It has substance, tangible rebellion, developed characters, sinister but believable villains, and a thread of angst. It is an edgy Say Anything, a believable Untamed Heart, an updated Rebel Without a Cause. It is also rewatchable, which is always a good sign that actual character development occurred. You can pick this thing up really cheap these days: it is an overlooked jewel that will grace your collection with subversive energy.
On the count of talking hard, I find Christian Slater guilty as charged. He is to be commended for his efforts to better the community. On the count of stealing the air, I find Samantha Mathis guilty; every time she is onscreen his honor's breath is taken away. The court recommends that the casting director be given a key to the city.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Cast/Director Filmographies
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