Is "Pump Up The Volume" The Most Underappreciated And Radical Teen Movie Ever? I SAY YES

Not to get all cane-shaking about it, but what do the disaffected youth watch today, without a young Christian Slater to be the smirking antihero who shows them how to defy authority and destroy everything?
Publish date:
August 23, 2013
movies, teen angst, nostalgia, emotions, 90s, M

I swear I didn't intend to host the first ever xoJane Christian Slater film festival, it just worked out that way. “Pump Up The Volume,” which was both written and directed by Allan Moyle, came out in 1990, only one year after the last movie I wrote about, “Heathers,” but the difference between them is staggering.

I remember “Pump Up The Volume” as speaking to my teenage experience in a voice so familiar it was almost painful to hear. As an adult, I see a lot of this as fairly universal adolescent melodrama, and yet the film captures it with such warmth and sympathy that instead of rolling my eyes at these overwrought shenanigans, I really feel for the kids involved, and their flailing efforts at survival in a world they only partly understand.

The first line we hear in this movie is, “You ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?” It’s spoken by an unseen Mark Hunter, the painfully shy and friendless new kid in this small Arizona suburb who invents a persona -- Happy Harry Hard-On -- whom he becomes every night on his illegal pirate radio show, transmitted from the basement of his parents’ house using radio equipment his dad bought him so he could try to communicate with his (ostensibly equally nerdy) friends back in New York.

Happy Harry is filthy, degenerate and unexpectedly kind-hearted; he reads letters from readers and offers typically impulsive teenage advice, and particularly enjoys the missives from the red-stationery-preferring “Poetry Lady,” (and, once, “The Eat-Me Beat-Me Lady”) who sends impassioned purple prose but refuses to sign her name or give her phone number, much to Harry’s despair, as listeners who include a phone number are “guaranteed” a call from the man himself. (As an aside, as a teenager I was convinced he called her the “Poultry Lady.” In retrospect I have no idea why “Poetry Lady” made less sense to me, apparently.)

Harry also spends a lot of time pretending to masturbate on-air. Why? Because it is totally something a teenage boy would do and find hilarious.

But there are two Mark Hunters, and the one who pretends to be the fearless and outspoken Hard Harry -- with help from a voice modulator -- at night could not be more different from the Mark Hunter who walks to school with hunched shoulders, who wears plaid shirts tucked into tidy jeans, and gold horn-rimmed glasses; who is embarrassed when his English teacher compliments his work in front of the whole class and who is virtually incapable of speaking to any of his peers, preferring instead to eat his lunch alone in a stairwell, reading a book.

It’s not true misanthropy that keeps Mark from friendship, it’s fear. Fear of being vulnerable, fear of making a mistake, fear of being rejected. All kids suffer this to one extent or another but for Mark, it’s truly paralyzing.

So because he can’t speak up as himself, he speaks out as Hard Harry, demonstrating the resourcefulness that many socially isolated teens rely on to survive. During one on-air monologue, he reads a letter from a listener who wants to know why he can’t be cheerful for once, and Harry observes, “There’s nothing to do anymore; everything decent's been done, all the great themes have been used up and turned into theme parks. So I don't find it exactly cheerful to be living in the middle of a like totally exhausted decade where there's nothing to look forward to and no one to look up to.”

In 1990, the Internet was not a thing most everyday people had access to, and even if they did there wasn’t much to see. The revolution of blogging and easy online self-publishing had not yet taken place; the closest thing to hand was the zine subculture, and the riot grrl zine explosion that would first introduce the idea of self-publishing to a lot of kids was in its nascent stages.

Pirate radio was one such outlet for the more technologically-advanced teen, and while it wasn’t something most kids had the equipment to perpetrate, it certainly made for a romantic choice -- being that one voice that your peers are really listening to, because it’s the only one speaking their truth.

It turns out the “Poetry Lady” is Nora (played by Samantha Mathis), Mark’s classmate and one of those effortlessly cool girls I always looked up to. She's not afraid of causing or being the focus of trouble, always led by her heart, although not always on the safe or level path. There are elements of Nora that make her a bit of a proto Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she doesn’t exist purely for the salvation of our hero either -- indeed, she kinda torments him at first, in a particularly painful exchange with Mark over a late library book, and she has her own ideas and motivations for everything she does.

Mark’s Hard Harry persona is not just about pretending to splooge all over his microphone. He has issues with his school, the conveniently named “Hubert H Humphrey High School,” where the “HHH” logos can also stand for “Happy Harry Hard-On.” His dad is the new school commissioner -- that’s why they moved here -- and a former anti-establishment hippie, to whom Mark’s mom, in a moment of heavy-handed exposition, says to him, “You were always fighting against the system, now you ARE the system.” OH, that’s where Mark gets it from! Commissioner Dad’s home office is even filled with old concert posters in neat frames, which we briefly see when Mark steals an internal memo from the guidance counselor at Humphrey High from his dad's desk.

In the subsequent radio show, Harry reads the memo, which refers to a pregnant student whom Mr. Deever, the guidance counselor, has recommended for expulsion, on the basis that she is “unremorseful” and that her “condition will have a negative effect on student morale.” Unsatisfied with simply sharing this information, Harry then calls Deever at home, at first pretending to be a reputable radio personality who wants to ask him about the programs at his school, but then quickly moving on to calling Deever out (also, "a slime") for his participation in the decision to expel the knocked-up student, telling Deever he has betrayed her trust. Deever, unsurprisingly, panics and hangs up.

But then things get worse when Harry opens a listener letter that asks, simply, whether the author should kill himself. Via the magic of film, we learn that the depressed letter-writer is Malcolm Kaiser, another isolated nerd with distant parents and an unbearable sense of isolation.

Harry, unsure how to handle this, calls the anonymous Malcolm and demands details: How is he going to do it? “I’m gonna blow my fuckin’ head off.”

Does he have a reason? Is he going to leave a note, so people will know why he did it? Harry barks at him, “We’re gonna need a note, pal!”

Malcolm, on the other end of the line, whispers, “I’m all alone.” Harry then tries to be reassuring, tries to explain that everybody is alone, but Kaiser doesn’t believe him and hangs up. When Harry tries to call back, we see Malcolm ignoring the phone and loading his gun.

Harry doesn't know what to say, because he feels like that kid, even if nobody thinks that’s possible based on his Hard Harry persona: "In real life I could be that anonymous nerd sitting behind you in chem lab, staring at you so hard, and when you turn around, he tries to smile, but the smile comes out all wrong, and you just think 'How pathetic,' and he just looks away, never looks back at you again."

The kids of “Pump Up The Volume” are both united and isolated by their egocentric misery; like most teens, they’re wrapped up in their own heads, and they can’t begin to conceive that anyone else could possibly feel as insecure and confused as they do, which prevents them from drawing support from one another. Malcolm Kaiser, who does commit suicide that night, couldn’t imagine that the real person behind Hard Harry was anything like him -- even though he is -- and thus his feeling of being utterly alone was underscored for the final time.

At school the next day, Mark summons his courage and attempts to talk to pretty, popular Paige Woodward during lunch. The school allows students to listen to music outside on the patio. Paige is sort of dancing by herself and Mark seizes the moment to awkwardly stride up to her and say “Hi,” barely louder than a whisper. When Paige stares at him, confused by his inelegant approach, he then abruptly walks away, shaking his head in self-directed disgust.

Nora then finds Mark eating alone in stairwell -- a habit he described on-air -- and when she spots his Black Jack gum, she conspiratorially leans in and asks him if he’s “really as horny as a ten-peckered owl.” Mark, horrified by her discovery as much as by the announcement that Malcolm Kaiser has killed himself, literally runs away from her, as she shouts after him that it wasn’t his fault.

Malcolm’s suicide is baffling to the adults in the movie but quietly understood by most of the teens, which leads to some tension between the parents and school officials who feel compelled to Do Something, and the kids themselves, whose sad but ultimately resigned acceptance of it seems to distress their parents even more.

At dinner, Mark’s mom and dad suggest he “talk to someone,” meaning a psychologist. Mark takes his about as well as you might expect, especially given that it’s clear to him that Malcolm Kaiser didn’t kill himself because he was just sad. Their conversation is so telling of how the years make us forget what it’s really like to be a teenager, to feel everything so strongly and to have none of the skills to handle all those feelings. So by the time Mark’s mom asks, with no small amount of exasperation, “Have you ever just walked up to a girl and said hi?” it’s no surprise that Mark should explode in anger because sometimes, parents just don’t understand.

Mark retires to his basement room and listens to Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” and this seems as good a time as any to note that the soundtrack for this film is truly outstanding, a bewildering and whiplash-inducing eclectic mix of little-known alternative artists, pure weirdness like Was (Not Was)’s “Dad I’m In Jail,” and simple brilliance courtesy of Cohen, and also Ivan Neville’s “Why Can’t I Fall In Love?”

Hard Harry goes on air only to tell his listeners he’s shutting the production down amidst his regrets that he never flat-out said to Malcolm, “Don’t do it.” He turns it all off for a few seconds before returning with more wisdom from the confused teenage hive-mind: "Your purpose is to get accepted. To get a cute girlfriend and think up something great to do for the rest of your life."

It sounds like a simple task, but that ignores the enormous pressure so many teens feel to GROW UP, to figure themselves out, to know what they're doing -- pressure that gets ignored by every adult who tells them that they don't know what stress is and that their lives are simple and worry-free compared to the much bigger concerns of adult life. But how can a teenager ever know this? More than that, why do we lie and pretend that being a teenager ISN'T one of the hardest things many of us have ever had to do?

And then Hard Harry says, “The terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead,” to which his now much wider audience -- that includes law enforcement and TV news crews -- listens with astonishment and horror that he is “making it worse,” especially since the idea is spreading that Malcolm was goaded into suicide by Harry’s show. His audience of peers, however, seems to hear and understand: finally, someone said it.

Harry then suggests that they NOT kill themselves, for a few weak reasons including that you might shit your pants. Instead, he asks if they are sick of being ashamed (to which teen queen Paige Woodward, listening in her immaculate girly bedroom, croaks, “Sick to DEATH,”) and suggests that instead of directing their pain inward, they do crazy shit to the world around them instead.

This sets off an explosion of insanity. Paige gathers the accoutrements of her perfect girl life and microwaves them, effectively blowing up her parents' kitchen. Kids of all stripes scream and dance around in their bedrooms, alone and with friends. The growing mass of superfans who gather at the high school playing fields, where signal reception is said to be strongest, hulk out and vandalize school property (including a surprisingly resourceful group that manages to create a a massive 10-foot phallus seemingly from thin air -- seriously though, where do you get one of those on short notice?).

This display of unity is great, if short-lived. Real life is rarely so straightforward that dancing around teen-movie style is a solution, and even the idea that we're not so different after all -- one of the film's repeated themes -- is not always accurate. To illustrate this point, Harry calls a gay listener who tells a story of being lured into the woods and tricked into taking off his clothes by a guy he had a crush on, only to be humiliated by the boy and his friends (and possibly even sexually assaulted, as when Harry asks, “What did you do?” the listener says, with a bleak finality, “Everything. Everything they told me to.”).

Harry tries to compliment the caller, to call him "strong," but the kid's interest in talking to him quickly turns to disgust when he realizes Harry has no answers. It’s a stark reminder that simply hearing, “Oh, all kids are confused and sad!” is not enough -- for some kids, things are far more complicated, and no amount of fun dancing times with 10-foot phalluses will erase what they have to suffer, and they shame and isolation they’re made to feel.

Throughout the film, kids have been vanishing from Hubert H. Humphrey High School, expelled for seemingly minor offenses. Now the school administration, led by the predictably villainous Principal Creswood, is leveraging the threat of explusion to try to find out who Hard Harry really is, as it has become apparent he’s a student there. An emergency meeting for parents, who demand they "get" this "radio guy," is interrupted by Paige Woodward, fresh from the hospital post-kitchen-explosion, who tells the crowd of Harry, “He’s trying to tell you there’s something wrong with this school.”

Nora comes over the evening after the meeting, and finds Mark outside, burning his letters to Hard Harry on a backyard grill, ostensibly to destroy evidence. She is angry that he wants to walk away, that he doesn't seem to care. Mark just wants it to be over; it’s clear he doesn't want to be a leader or a voice people rely on. It's not that he knows any better than anyone else what’s wrong, or what needs to be done, it's that he can speak their truth in ways that many of his peers cannot, and in so doing reminds all of these terrified and confused and insecure kids that it's not just them, and they are not alone. It’s a heavy burden, and he doesn’t want to carry it anymore.

But he can’t tell any of this to Nora, because he is literally incapable of speaking to her, thanks to his overwhelming shyness. Still, he goes on the air, because it’s almost as if he can’t help himself. He then narrowly avoids discovery by his parents, whose initial suspicions that he IS Hard Harry are forgotten when Nora pops up from behind a couch and apologizes for being in Mark’s room without their knowledge.

There’s another near miss when Harry’s call to Mr. Deever’s new suicide hotline is traced, and a moment of impressive incompetence when the police learn that he’s been stealing his phone line from a neighbor, in whose shed he set up a cordless transmitter, and that “He could be in any house within a thousand yards of here.” Um, wouldn’t they then conduct a house-by-house search? Like it seems weird that they’d be like, “Ugh, a thousand yards? Let’s just give up.”

Back at school the following day, the pregnant student has been reinstated, and one of the “bad kids” expelled the first week of school for dress code (and also one of Harry’s original superfans) gets punched by a school official. When the thoughtful English teacher objects, she is fired on the spot. Then Nora is expelled for failing math and cutting class, and it seems like things are really falling apart and no one is in control.

As the whole student body -- including those who have been kicked out -- seems to be looking to Harry as a hero, and his show is being rebroadcast over state lines, the FCC rolls in with a bunch of big yellow vans and unshakeable intentions of locating his rogue transmission and shutting Harry's obscene circus down permanently.

That evening, the now massive gathering of students at the high school athletic fields is totally uncontainable, even going so far as to hang and burn an effigy of Principal Creswood, and it’s pretty easy to understand why parents and school officials would be shitting themselves at this point. Teenagers can be way scary.

Mark is not giving up yet, though, and takes his transmission mobile, to outrun the FCC trucks trying to locate him. He "borrows" his mom's Jeep, loads it up with broadcast equipment and enlists Nora to drive it. As they tear around town playing music and generally being deranged kids, the fired English teacher turns up at the school, where Principal Creswood and Mark’s dad, the school commissioner, have also gathered, to offer proof that Creswood has been profiling and expelling students with little basis to keep the school’s all-important SAT scores up, which are Creswood’s pride and the highest in the state. More than that, Creswood has kept these students’ names on the roster, and thereby received a lot of federal funding by illegally inflating her numbers. Mark’s dad suspends her on the spot.

In the meantime, Mark and Nora are trying to escape the FCC and law enforcement, who are rapidly closing in on them. A panicked Nora drives them to the school fields where a massive gathering of students and locals has gathered to listen, and Mark, finally visible and recognized, assures them all, “We’re all in pain. It can only get better.”

But it does and it doesn’t. So much of growing up is less about figuring out how to know what you’re doing, and more about learning that the world is not the wonderful place we thought it was as younger children, and we are not at its center -- and that coming to terms with this truth is often some hard and brutal work.

Mark tells his classmates to follow his example and speak out themselves, and he and Nora are finally shut down and apprehended.

Watching this as a teenager myself, this was a stunning moment. He gets ARRESTED? It’s OVER? He does and it is. The last we see of Mark Hunter is him being roughly thrust into a police van yelling, “TALK HARD!” to the assembled crowd. There is no happy ending, no follow up, no resolution, except when we hear dozens of new voices taking Harry’s lead and pirating their own radio, to reach out to others who need someone to listen to.

It is not an ending that insults its audience, the same audience that it tries to portray -- those teens who are unhappy and insecure and always trying not to show it, and exhausted by the charade. It doesn’t pretend that Mark and Nora can hide behind a tree and evade the cops and maybe make out a little and keep their secrets forever.

Mark wouldn’t stop until someone stopped him; this is obvious given the number of times he tries to give it up and can’t, can’t keep his mouth shut or look the other way, because somebody needs to say something. He can’t stand by and let bad things happen. And he doesn’t want anyone else to be able to ignore them either.

In a weird and unexpected way, “Pump Up The Volume” is about being an activist, a whistleblower, and a troublemaker, and confronting and illuminating injustice instead of leaving it to be someone else’s problem. It's about doing all of this as part of a generation that many adults of the same era would disgustedly characterize as apathetic and unmotivated; a year later, Richard Linklater's film "Slacker" would give them their name.

For many people, growing up involves developing a shrugging disregard for injustice; much of "successful" adulthood, as it is culturally defined, demands a tempered rage and a dulled passion. At some point, Mark’s dad was probably just like him, and eventually he learned to become the system. Mark might have followed him there -- but he might not. It’s a choice. We choose what we fight for, and what we overlook. We often choose the risks we take, or the safety we cling to.

And we may have more to learn from outraged teenagers who know little of the world than we might think. In the meantime, this is Hard Harry, reminding you to eat your cereal with a fork, and do your homework in the dark.

You can follow Lesley on the Twitters to hear her opine further on movies and television and weird catalogs she gets in the mail: @52stations