Pump Up The Volume offers a punk twist on the John Hughes formula

Pump Up The Volume offers a punk twist on the John Hughes formula

“Sleep tight, Mr. Serious. Maybe you’ll feel better tomorrow.” —Christian Slater, Pump Up The Volume

Beloved though he may be, especially by Gen-X nostalgists weaned on his work, there’s a cynicism at the core of John Hughes’ work that was always mistaken for empathy. In his mid-’80s heyday, before his career drifted off into Home Alone sequels and kid-friendly slapstick, Hughes had a talent for generalizing teenage angst so broadly that his films seemed to speak to the teenage experience. Even if teens couldn’t identify precisely with jocks, nerds, princesses, and burnouts, those banners stretched enough to make it feel like Hughes was speaking to them. As Pauline Kael once wrote of Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, “The movie is about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.” Most of his films’ emotional authenticity comes from troupe members like Molly Ringwald, which is why Pretty In Pink, with Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton, plays so much more convincingly than Some Kind Of Wonderful, even though they’re basically the same movie. And there’s not as much disconnect as there appears to be between the man who made Sixteen Candles and the man who made Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, just a different strain of commercial calculation. 

Striking a similar chord of Gen-X disconnect, Allan Moyle’s fascinating 1990 film, Pump Up The Volume, also trades in generalized teenage angst, following a pirate-radio DJ who wins an audience of fellow high-school students by bitching about school, parents, and feeling left out. But for all its many problems, particularly in a plot-choked second half, there’s complexity and soul to the film’s dissection of the teenage psyche, poised between the punk impulse to tear things apart and a more touching desire for young people to be honest and have their voices heard. And though the film has its share of villainous authority figures, it at least shows some sympathy for the class of former ’60s hippies turned sellout suburban parents and the confusing imprint they leave on their children. Kids like Christian Slater’s basement broadcaster see enough of the residue of their parents’ idealism to be keenly aware of where it’s been compromised, and he’s ticked off about it. Yet who can really blame his parents—having sold out for the chance to put him in a nice house and “the best school in the district”—for not wanting to hear him bitch about it? 

Opening his broadcast with Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”—the second New Cult Canon entry, after Exotica, to be dominated by that particular song—Mark Hunter (Slater) infiltrates the FM dial at 10 p.m. every night in an Arizona suburb. Using a shortwave radio that his parents bought him to communicate with friends back on the East Coast, where they used to live, Mark sends his missives off into the night as if no one was listening—an assumption that allows him to be candid when he’s normally taciturn. Using the handle “Happy Harry Hard-on,” Mark’s radio persona is teenage id gone wild, complete with faux-masturbation sessions and claims of broadcasting naked, wearing nothing but a cock ring. His freeform monologues about all the things wrong with school and America are interspersed with listener phone calls and great songs from Descendents, The Pixies, Richard Hell, Beastie Boys, and others. 

It’s a predictable irony, then, that Mark is a shy, bespectacled student given to stealing away to empty stairwells with copies of books like Lenny Bruce’s How To Talk Dirty And Influence People. When he sees his underground show infiltrating the campus via bootleg tapes and graffiti, it scares him a little. It’s one thing to talk dirty and influence people, but it’s hard for him to accept responsibility for what he’s created. He also has trouble dealing with the advances of a fan (Samantha Mathis) who figures out his identity and encourages him to get his message out. Meanwhile, their top-rated school has been quietly expelling scores of students in a bid to keep test scores up. 

That Pump Up The Volume turns into a film about the right to an education is adorably wonky, a pragmatic end achieved through punk means. The administrators responsible for this stats-juking chicanery are cardboard villains, as are the TV reporters and FCC officials who descend on the scene in the third act. But it brings Mark’s father, a well-meaning superintendent, into the picture, and he’s a nuanced exception, someone whose integrity has been whittled almost (but not quite) to the nub. True of many rebel-teen movies from James Dean on, the distance between father and son—and their similarities, too—are a motivating force for the latter. Mark wants his father and himself to live up to a higher standard; being the new kid in a shitty school in a shitty suburb just changes the avenue through which he does it. 

The best scenes in Pump Up The Volume show Happy Harry Hard-on in action, with Slater sending his Nicholson voice out into the ether. Moyle, who wrote and directed—his previous film, Times Square, made a decade prior, was similarly punk-influenced—succeeds at making Mark’s show something teenagers would legitimately want to hear. Even those who aren’t into the music or his juvenile jokes might connect to stunts like prank calling an administrator who wrote a memo about booting a pregnant student from school, or to his sympathetic rants about the trials of adolescence. In this scene, he goes through some reader mail and calls Mr. Serious, a lonely kid who has threatened to kill himself. 

Harry’s failure to reach Mr. Serious eats away at him, but it ultimately feeds into a general point about teen angst as something to be survived until life starts presenting less confusion and more choices. Until then, missives like Harry’s nightly broadcast function both as an act of rebellion against grown-up monitoring and a salve to the 100 percent of teenagers who feel they’re all alone. What’s remarkable about watching Pump Up The Volume, more than 20 years later, is how much this pre-Internet film anticipates the current wave of podcasts and blogs that have become a diary and a megaphone for people trying to put their solitary thoughts on the record. No one’s turning on the radio to do it—or having to worry about the FCC, for that matter—but the relationship between the host and the listener (or the blogger and the reader) isn’t that much different. Interaction may be quicker and easier now, but it’s similarly intimate and recorded/received in isolation, one sad kid in his basement or bedroom connecting with another. 

Pump Up The Volume isn’t above a little audience flattery: None of its teens are corrupt or corruptible, just an oppressed class of truth-tellers who look to Harry as their spokesman and liberator. (Contrast that with the FCC official who shakes his head and says, “This is the problem with free speech.”) Incredible soundtrack aside, it sticks because Moyle taps into the hyper-charged lifeforce of the teenage mind, pulsing as it does with angst, hormones, narcissism, and idealism—all up for sharing with anybody who will listen without judgment. It’s an unlikely triumph that a movie about a pirate-radio broadcast could feel so modern and evergreen. 


Coming up: 
February 7: Zoolander
February 28: Hard Target
March 21: My Own Private Idaho