As part of the Ultimate 90’s Blogathon I reviewed a few films, the first of which was Pump Up The Volume starring Christian Slater:
“Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely f*cked up? You know that feeling? The whole country is like one inch away from saying ‘that’s it, forget it!’. Think about it, everything’s polluted: the environment, the government, the schools – you name it.”
That is Happy Harry Hard-On’s opening line from the 1990 sleeper hit Pump Up The Volume. As opening lines go it’s pretty cool, it’s also quite apt for now or pretty much any decade you choose. You could even change America for your own country.
Hard Harry is played by Christian Slater, who had already enjoyed some success with Heathers in 1988 and would go on to star in Young Guns II, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, True Romance a host of other film and TV series and most recently Mr. Robot.
Slater plays Mark Hunter, a new student at Hubert H. Humphrey High School – hence the name of his alter-ego – in Phoenix, Arizona. Having moved with his parents from ‘out-East’ he is now a loner, struggling to make friends. His parents buy him a short-wave radio to talk to his friends back home (before the days of the internet) but he can’t reach them and so, instead, he begins broadcasting his teenage angst on the pirate airways.
What he doesn’t realise at first, is just how many people this angst is resonating with and more and more teens begin tuning in and hanging off his every word. He almost brings things to a halt when one student kills himself after speaking with Hard Harry on-air. Instead, he tells his listeners that suicide is not the answer and to rebel instead. Rebel they do, spraying graffiti over the school, microwaving possessions and more.
As the trouble reaches a crescendo the FCC are brought in to pin-point the radio broadcast and put an end to it. At the same time, it’s revealed that the school’s principal, played by Annie Ross (Superman III, Throw Momma From The Train) has been expelling problem kids but keeping their names on the books to get money from the government and make the school look better.
Despite not doing that well at the box office in the US, it has gone on to be a cult classic. Perhaps because its message that, if things aren’t ok, change them, speaks to people young and old. It’s also a message that doesn’t age, unlike some of the outfits and hairstyles in the movie!
Slater is brilliant in the DJ chair. He seems genuinely excited to be talking to whoever is listening and makes you believe in what he’s saying. The juxtaposition between that and this nerdy, awkward teenager in school, is a wonderful transformation (although physically it’s a bit Superman – just wear glasses) and another reason why it resonates so well; a lot of us can related to being different people at different times, whether that’s home and work or home and school.
Being a pirate DJ you’d expect the music of the film to be good. As an opening song, Hard Harry uses Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen but other than it’s more talking than music. Having said that we do get glimpses of cassettes (remember them?) of: The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, Soundgarden and many more.
Although supposed to be teenagers Slater was actually 21 when he filmed the movie whilst his female accomplice who discovers his true identity was actress Samantha Mathis (Buried, Broken Arrow, The Strain, Under The Dome) and she was 20.
Quite a few people in the film went on to have careers within the Hollywood machine. The guidance councillor who takes quite a bit of stick from Hard Harry is played Robert Schenkkan, you’ll probably know him as the writer of Hacksaw Ridge and The Quiet American. Ellen Greene plays English teacher Jan Emerson. Green is probably best known for her role as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and was also in Naked Gun 33 1/3, Leon, The Cooler, Pushing Daisies, Heroes and many more.
A ‘blink and you’ll miss her’ role is also had for Holly Sampson who, well, she, erm, that is, well she went into the adult entertainment industry, where she has certainly been busy, according to IMDB. Star Trek fans can catch sight of Alexander Enberg, best known for Ensign Vorik in Voyager, Gregg Daniel from True Blood and Nigel Gibbs whose been in everything from Breaking Bad, House, Veep, The Shield and practically any other cop-based TV show you can think of, also show up.
Perhaps the best ‘look who it is’ moment is saved for Seth Green. You’ll know Seth Green from his voice work these days on Family Guy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Robot Chicken to name but three. Prior to this he did used to show his face and was in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Sh*gged me and Buffy The Vampire Slayer amongst others. In Pump Up The Volume he sports the most magnificent red haired mullet you will ever see, truly glorious!
Writer and director Allan Moyle went on to direct Empire Records and Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story. Perhaps all his angst was used up on Pump Up The Volume? Who knows.
Whilst Pump Up The Volume isn’t perfect, and is often overlooked in 90’s films, for me, and anyone I know who’s seen it, it remains a true great. Whilst the technology may have changed, the angst felt by those young and old hasn’t: we want to be heard, we want to talk hard. But if Pump Up The Volume remains a great film under the radar, so be it.