Pump Up the Volume (1990) Movie Review

Allan Moyle’s 1990 effort, “Pump up the Volume” stars Christian Slater as a shy kid who is transplanted to a small Arizona community where he becomes a notorious shock jock that shatters the formerly quiet community’s status quo. Despite being 12 years old, the film is still relevant today, if not more so, and gets to the heart of the matter: the disillusionment of teenagers and the widening gap (and lack) of communication between teens and their parents, teens and adults, and teens and the world with which they find themselves in general.

As Mark, Slater has probably done his best work here, as a shy High Schooler who finds fame and problems when he moonlights as “Happy Harry Hardon” (the HHH also happens to be the initials of his new school). Harry the disc jockey is the alter ego of Mark that he broadcasts from his parent’s garage as a way for him to communicate with himself. You see, he is unable to communicate in the real world, and the radio is his way out. Despite being the product of ex-hippies, Mark finds it hard to communicate with not only his parents and other adults, but also with his own peers. Mark is isolated from the world, lost and alone in a pool filled with other people. When one of Mark’s listeners commit suicide after calling him, the cops get involved, and the terminally isolated Mark becomes even more isolated despite having a legion of fans that hangs on his every word, but a community waiting to crucify him.

I like how writer/director Allan Moyle (“X-Change”) never really tries to explain why Mark is the way he is. Mark is shy — and that’s all there is to it. Mark is naturally shy the way some kids are naturally obese no matter how hard they try to lose weight; the way other kids always seem to find themselves as outsiders without trying; and the way popular kids are always without a loss for words no matter the situation. This is who Mark is, who the other kids are, and to try to “understand” why they are “the way they are” is missing the whole point completely. They are who they are because they just are.

The film tackles some very interesting subjects, with teen angst being just one of them. If anything, “Volume” is more of a guide for parents and adults than it is for kids, since although kids will completely embrace the characters and the film’s themes, it’s the parents and adults who have no idea.

I first saw “Volume” while in High School and could see fellow, real-life students in every single one of these characters. There’s the popular girl (Cheryl Pollak), who it turns out is popular with everyone but herself; everyone uses her, from the boys that wants to be seen with her to the father who lives vicariously through her academic successes. There’s the outsider (Samantha Mathis (“Broken Arrow”) making her debut) who is flamboyant and outspoken on the outside, but is just as confused and isolated as everyone else when alone.

What keeps “Volume” from being a great film is its subplot about the high school faculty’s conspiracy to manufacture the school’s high standards by expelling troubled and other undesirable students. While the suspension of a pregnant girl (Holly Sampson) just because she’s pregnant and refuses to beat herself over it is compelling, the rest of the movie’s focus involving the school seems slightly unreal. Yes, I believe there are faculty who treat their students as cattle, but the Nazi-like motivations of “Volume”‘s school faculty seems too much. Perhaps they could be explained away as satire, but the film’s grounded tone makes this excuse implausible.

This is also where Moyle fails his audience. He fails, in my opinion, to understand that his story of teen isolation and desperation is compelling enough to stand on its own two feet. Instead Moyle is unable to have enough faith in his audience and feels the need to inject the school conspiracy angle into the plot. The movie also makes generic statements about parents and is unable to keep from using the simpleminded “Us versus Them” angle — “Us” being the kids and “Them” being the parents/adults. Yes, parents and adults are for the most part clueless about the pressures of just being a teen in a world that refuses to accept nonconformity, but parental detachment seems like a result of laziness and ignorance rather than intentional.

Besides a great performance by Christian Slater (“Who is Cletus Tout?”) as the troubled Mark, “Volume” also features a terrific soundtrack that, thankfully, is devoid of the teen pop that populates Teen Flick soundtracks of today. Besides some indies, we get some punk rock, hip-hop, and even oldie Beastie Boys (“oldies” from a 2002 perspective, anyway). Leonard Cohen is all over the place, lending atmosphere and authenticity to the proceedings.

With events such as the Columbine shooting and other teen-related crimes of today, “Pump Up the Volume” deserves a look. Don’t let the film’s release date fool you, because 12 years after its introduction, “Volume” is still an incredibly powerful movie that deals with subjects and situations many adults just don’t understand, or don’t know exists. The discontent of teens, the inability to see where they are going, or to even figure out what they’ll do tomorrow, can’t all be reasoned out as “slacking off.” While it is very much true that many teens do know where they are going, there are many more who don’t.

If anything, “Pump up the Volume” has proven that the gap between adults and teens have grown even more so since 1990. Unfortunately.

Allan Moyle (director) / Allan Moyle (screenplay)
CAST: Christian Slater …. Mark Hunter
Andy Romano …. Murdock
Keith Stuart Thayer …. Luis Chavez
Cheryl Pollak …. Paige
Billy Morrissette …. Mazz Mazzilli
Samantha Mathis …. Nora Diniro

Buy Pump Up the Volume on DVD