PUMP UP THE VOLUME (1990)
By day new-in-town Mark is a reclusive high school student with no friends and even less social skills. But by night, hidden behind a microphone on his pirate radio station he runs out of his bedroom, Mark becomes Hard Harry, a voice for the town's angst-filled youth. His take-no-prisoners attitude stirs up his fellow classmates, who in turn begin to stand up against the authoritarian rule of the principle, who has been expelling students right and left in order to secretly build up the school's test scores to get more funding. Mark, who only wanted to reach out via the airwaves to be heard, soon finds himself way over his head as school officials close in on him and the FCC comes to town in order to stop his pirate broadcasting. But as Hard Harry, he knows that he must follow through to the bitter end to finish what he started.
On the heels of the Reagan years and an era that spurned some brilliantly angry voices and music, comes this rallying call for the voiceless to stand up and really make themselves known. This is one of those right-time-right-place movies that really captured the uneasy and unaccepted feelings that were flowing through the tail-end of the official Gen-X revolution. Christian Slater, who the year before won over girls' hearts everywhere as a psychopathic teen in HEATHERS, takes on his first top-starring role here and completely nails the character. Though his devilish looks makes it just a tad hard to swallow that his character would not be instantly accepted within the ranks, his transformation into the introverted Mark more than makes up for it.
Slater's supporting cast makes the movie very easy to feel like you are a fly on the wall of the high school. These actors look the part and great attention is given to making a cross-section of high school life. These characters are given just enough screen time that they breakaway from being stereotypes in the background to real kids who happen to be geeks, brains, punks, jocks, and princesses. Mark's parents, as well as the some of the supporting cast's parents, are given enough screen time to present them as mostly well meaning but clueless as to what their offspring are going through. Mark's angry rants, which come off somewhat as junior-league Denis Leary monologues, are certainly passionate, if not a little misguided. But hey that's hormones for you. Older viewers may find that Mark's words bring up faded memories of years gone by. Today's youth, however, may not be able to identify with it (you tell me). This is after all the voice of a previous generation of teenagers.
Pairing perfectly with the angry vocal undertones of the film lies an even angrier soundtrack. Leonard Cohen's dismally depressing yet thoroughly brilliant "Everybody Knows" plays as the central theme song to the movie, playing several times during throughout. College radio heroes The Pixies, Soundgarden and Sonic Youth lend their fully distorted guitar work, while the Bad Brains team up with Henry Rollins for an growling cover of MC5's "Kick Out The Jams".
Director and writer Allan Moyle, who would later give angry youth a bubble-gum makeover with EMPIRE RECORDS, does a pretty solid job of capturing the murmur of his subjects. Not since perhaps FAST TIME AT RIDGEMONT HIGH has high school seems so real on screen. (Both of course would be trumped by the criminally short-lived television show My So-Called Life). Moyle's direction is subtle, and his cinematic angles and choices give the feeling that the camera was just left on and recorded these scenes as they naturally happened. Only briefly does the film betray these notions as it turns to an almost hyper-reality, whose only purposes are to move the story to an end point.
At the end of the day, PUMP UP THE VOLUME has but one universal message that will always be true - everyone has a voice and everyone deserves to be heard and listened to. In today's age, with massive digital peer communities and more ways to communicate than ever needed, getting your voice heard only takes a few strokes at the keyboard, a few button pushes on a blackberry or a cheap webcam. But with millions of voices shouting at once, the easier it is to be heard, the harder it becomes. Amongst those millions are a few voices that are "talking hard" and struggling to make a difference. Mark, where ever his character is today, would be proud, and is probably broadcasting on some remote website as we speak.