Allan Moyle, 1990
Starring: Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis
There are a handful of movies that I will never be able to qualitatively assess because of my deeply nostalgic connection to them. Return of the Living Dead is one such film and Pump of the Volume, for good or for bad, is another.
I'm not sure what happened to high school/teen rebellion movies, but I feel like they don't exist anymore. Superbad and Napoleon Dynamite don't count and are worlds away from the slew of of '80s and early '90s films about teens rebelling against the system. Pump up the Volume is one of those rare gems, a film that involves teen rebellion, excellent music, real social subversion, and sexual discovery, as well as embracing the very real differences between people. And Christian Slater looks pretty hot.
Written and directed by Allan Moyle (Empire Records), Pump up the Volume tells the story of Mark, an awkward high school student whose parents have forced him to move to Arizona because his father won a coveted job as school commissioner. Hating high school and unable to make friends, Mark starts a pirate FM radio show under the pseudonym Hard Harry. He gives real school news about people who were expelled or forced to drop out, talks about serious emotional issues, is frequently obscene, and plays some awesome music. He becomes a legend around school as more kids get expelled and are openly unhappy. One student kills himself, which brings a wave of backlash. The school board and FCC begin to hunt for Mark. Only Nora (Mathis) has figured out his identity, but he tries to hide from her too. How can he resolve this mess?
The film isn't perfect. In particular there are a number of visual inconsistencies and plot holes, as well as some major unanswered questions, such as how Mark gets his expensive radio equipment and figures out how to set up a pirate radio show. Regardless, this movie comes highly recommended, though I think if you missed seeing it in the last ten or so years and have lost your teenage self, it might not be worth it. It's a fun film full of angst and self discovery. It's also insane to think about how many issues filmmakers got away with exploring in the '80s and pre-Columbine '90s. Pump up the Volume alone deals with teen pregnancy, suicide, rampant school board racism, emotional abuse from parents, teen sexuality, and features Mark pretending to jerk off on the radio show.
The film is worth seeing regardless of your age, appreciation of social subversion, or general joie de vivre. It has a great performances from Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis in her first film role. And any commercial film that has such a strong anti-censorship message deserves support, even twenty years after the fact. Though I'm reviewing a VHS tape version of the film, it's available on DVD from New Line, where it comes with both wide- and full-screen versions.
I will leave you with one of my favorite scenes from the film that I still think is really romantic:
On a final note, it makes an excellent double feature with Heathers, another film particularly beloved to me.