Oh, 1990, what a quaint and backwards time you were. It’s fun to realize that, less than five or six years after Pump Up The Volume came out, technology and culture had passed it by like it was a golf cart on a drag strip. Kid misses his friends back east? Obviously never heard of e-mail, let alone instant messaging. Of course, this was during the dark ages when AOL still charged by the minute, so maybe they just can’t afford it on his dad’s school administrator’s salary.
On the other hand, you could say this film was slightly ahead of its time. The protagonist’s pirate radio station is not much different in concept from the podcasters that appeared on the scene in late 2004 and early 2005. Writer/director Allan Moyle got one thing right: the liberating feeling of speaking your mind into a microphone and knowing that somebody, anybody is listening.
Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) is the painfully shy son of a school district administrator (Scott Paulin) who has just uprooted his family to suburban Arizona. The technically incompetent but apparently guilt-ridden father buys his son a short-wave radio to talk to his friends back home. How he thought that was going to work, I have no idea, but Mark uses the radio for a new outlet. At night, the shy kid who doesn’t talk to anyone becomes a profane pirate-radio anarchist named “Hard Harry,” broadcasting to all of the kids in his neighborhood who, as he catches on, distribute tapes of his show to other students at school.
His dad’s position with the school district gives “Hard Harry” the access he needs to expose the school principal (Annie Ross) and her plan to expel “problem” kids (their problem being that they have low test scores, driving down the school’s average). He also to starts to attract the attention of a cute girl on campus named Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis), whose detective work threatens to unmask him. We know she’s cool because her name sounds like DeNiro, right?
Unfortunately, “Hard Harry” also attracts the unwanted attention of the school administration and the FCC. When an on-air phone call from a distraught student goes tragically wrong, the stakes of Mark’s “creative outlet” are suddenly much higher.
Pump Up the Volume works best when Christian Slater is on-camera and on the air. His delivery of Moyle’s rants is raw and quite real enough. The reaction of the other kids when exhorted by “Hard Harry” to “get crazy” is a bit weak. In suburban Arizona, getting crazy apparently means dancing around, yelling a bit, sticking your hair drier in the microwave and, oh yes, running through the park carrying a giant paper-mache penis. To quote one of the characters in this movie: “Fuckin’ yuppies.”
The film probably would have been much better without the “evil school principal” sub-plot. Teenagers don’t need hyped-up “conspiracies” in order to have meaningful angst. On the plus side, Allan Moyle was prescient enough to make the FCC one of the bad guys, a full 14 years before Janet Jackson’s tit made its unwanted television debut.
Of course, I still haven’t figured out where those kids were supposed to have gotten that giant paper-mache penis at the spur of the moment.