Allan Moyle and John Hughes both make escapist teen movies that feature fantasy stories populated by easily relatable characters that exist in an idealized world. The teenagers that inhabit their respective films are ones that are beautiful, funny and smart – in other words, what teens would like to be and not always what they really are. The crucial difference between the two filmmakers is that the characters in Moyle’s films are more flawed and fucked-up. There’s Nicky and Pamela – two runaways from a mental hospital in Times Square (1980); there’s the socially awkward and painfully shy Mark in Pump Up the Volume (1990); and finally, the suicidal Deb in Empire Records (1995). It is these last two films that are Moyle’s most well-known thanks to the casts of young, soon-to-be-successful actors and soundtracks featuring amazing collections of alternative rock music that was popular at the time.
Pump Up the Volume is Moyle’s best film to date. It is a freedom of speech tract subversively disguised as a teen movie. With this film, he goes after the shady practices of schools that will stop at nothing to maintain high SAT scores and champions kids having the rights to talk to each other openly and honestly about things that affect them on a daily basis. The film is also Moyle’s most uncompromising effort, concluding with a rather bittersweet ending that leaves the protagonist’s fate in question.
“You ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up? You know that feeling that the whole country is like one inch away from saying, ‘That’s it! Forget it!’” - Mark
By day, Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) is a shy, socially awkward teenager who goes to school in a sterile Phoenix, Arizona suburb. By night, he is a witty and profane provocateur who vents his frustrations via an FM pirate radio station under the colorful moniker “Happy Harry Hard-On.” He broadcasts from his bedroom transmitter located in the basement of his parents’ house in the middle of anonymous suburb. Inspired by the subversive comedy of free speech martyr Lenny Bruce, Mark sounds off against all kinds of things (“Everything’s polluted – the environment, the government, the schools.”), talks about masturbating frequently and playing a diverse collection of music that includes Soundgarden, the Descedents, Beastie Boys and Pixies among others. Most interestingly, is his use of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” with its jaded, cynical lyrics (“Everybody knows the good guys lost … the poor stay poor, the rich get rich.”), as the show’s theme song. It’s a real masterstroke by Moyle as the lyrics and downbeat music reflect the moodiness of teenagers who feel like the world is against them.
Mark’s broadcasts are full of rude humor (“Tonight we have #12 of 100 things to do to your body when you’re all alone.”) and he delights in exposing the hypocrisy of the system by calling up the school’s guidance counselor at one point (Robert Schenkkan) and confronting him about his participation in expelling a student because she was pregnant. He answers fan mail that ranges from the ridiculous to the genuinely troubling, like a teen contemplating suicide, that helps give the initially irreverent film some much needed gravitas. Mark’s show provides the kids in white bread suburbia something subversive to check out in-between family dinners and homework. He is trying to provoke his listeners to think critically and to think for themselves. The pirate radio station is also a conduit for Mark to voice his own dissatisfaction with the state of things. As he puts it, “There’s nothing to do anymore, everything decent’s been done, all the great themes have been used up, turned into theme parks.” He finds himself “living in the middle of a totally exhausted decade where there’s nothing to look forward to and no one to look up to.”
He certainly can’t look up to his parents, former hippies that fought against the system during the 1960s and have now sold out and become part of it. His mom (Mimi Kennedy) even says to her husband (Scott Paulin) at one point, “The man I married loved his work not power and money,” to which he replies, “Well, that’s alright. I still love my work and I love power and money.” In this brief exchange, we get Moyle’s stinging indictment of the Baby Boomers and what’s wrong with them – they wanted to change the system and instead became absorbed by it.
Bootleg tapes of Mark’s broadcasts circulate among the students of his school with speculation rife about the true identity of “Hard Harry.” Chief among them is Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis), a Goth chick that submits her sexy poetry to Harry under her own provocative moniker, the “Eat Me Beat Me Lady.” They’re attracted to each other’s fictional personas and she begins to suspect that Mark is Harry and eventually confronts him. As his audience increases, so do the risks of being caught and soon he gets the attention of Principal Creswood (Annie Ross), a disciplinarian who runs the school with an iron fist, spouting platitudes like, “The lesson of modern education is nothing comes easy; no pain, no gain.” It’s amazing that she is able to believe her own bullshit and Moyle makes her a simple, one-note villain whose only purpose is to give Mark someone he is determined to take down, a target at which to vent his angst.
Still fresh from his turn as an unhinged psychopath in Heathers (1989), Christian Slater is perfectly cast as a disillusioned teenager looking for a new voice to emerge and shake things up only to eventually realize (with Nora’s helps) that he’s that voice. Still sporting that Jack Nicholson-esque drawl, he puts a wonderfully dry, sarcastic spin on retorts to his father who warns him that, “One of these days you’re gonna outsmart yourself, young man,” with, “I love it when you call me young man.” Pump Up the Volume is definitely one of Slater’s strongest performances, if not his best as he gets to bounce back and forth between shy, introvert and lewd, crude purveyor of the truth. Not only does he get to spout classic one-liners but also deliver impassioned monologues, like when Mark addresses the suicide of a student and segues into an angry rant advocating living and bucking the system, inviting his audience to stage their own personal revolutions. The smartass nature of Hard Harry was ideally suited for Slater but we really hadn’t seen much vulnerability from him. He got a chance to expose that side a bit with Mark. The actor pulls it off and even anticipates his role in Untamed Heart (1993) where he really stripped away most of his acting tics, playing an extremely introverted character. However, he started to test the waters with Pump Up the Volume, showing a range that he hadn’t in previous films.
Samantha Mathis, in her feature film debut, is good as the alterna-girl that gradually brings Mark out of his shell. She has excellent chemistry with Slater (they were an item at the time of filming) and the sexual tension is almost tangible, especially during the scene where Mark and Nora finally kiss as Ivan Neville’s seductive “Why Can’t I Fall in Love?” plays on the soundtrack. Nora is the cool girl I always wished I knew in high school that was artistic and had great taste in music. I feel that this was probably large part of the appeal of Mathis’ character.
After his second directorial effort, the New Wave music comedy Times Square, was taken away from him and re-edited, resulting in a critical and commercial failure, Allan Moyle quit directing to focus on writing screenplays. One of them was about a teenager who runs his own pirate radio station for other people his age. When creating the character of Mark, Moyle wanted a fusion of his two favorite outsiders – Lenny Bruce and Holden Caulfield. Hubert Humphrey High, the school Mark goes to in the film, was inspired by a Montreal high school where Moyle’s sister used to teach. According to the director, the principal “had a pact with the staff to enhance the credibility of the school scholastically at the expense of the students who were immigrants or culturally disabled in some way or another.” With Pump Up the Volume, he wanted to make a film with an edge to it, one that was tougher than John Hughes’ films.
A Toronto-based company called SC Entertainment bought the script and put it into development where it was eventually was made by New Line Cinema. Moyle originally wanted to call his film, Talk Hard, but was overruled by producer Bob Shaye who changed it to Pump Up the Volume, after the hit song of the same name, much to the director’s chagrin. Even after Moyle wrote the script, he had to be persuaded to direct again and stipulated in his contract that he would only make the film if the right actor to play Mark were found. He had to be “ineffably sweet and at the same time demonic,” Moyle said in an interview. The director reasoned that he didn’t want to spend nine weeks making a film with a young actor he couldn’t stand being around. He met with Christian Slater over lunch and knew that he was the right person for the role. The young actor was drawn to the project because of the authenticity of the writing, which he found to be “so real.” At the time he was making Pump Up the Volume, Slater’s personal life was a mess. He was drinking heavily and had run-ins with the law. Moyle remembers that the actor drank every night but never on set and was not a problem.
Pump Up the Volume received mixed reviews from critics. In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “It might be argued that writer-director Allan Moyle and his collaborators have simply concocted an intoxicating fantasy, and certainly the power of fantasy isn’t irrelevant to what gives the movie its lift. But the fantasy happens to be believable.” The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, “Working within the confines of the teen-age genre film, however, Pump Up the Volume still succeeds in sounding a surprising number of honest, heartfelt notes.” USA Today praised the film’s ending, despite it being, “in part, contrived, doesn’t cop out.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “It's a howl from the heart, a relentlessly involving movie that gives a kid every reason to believe that he or she can come of age. It appreciates the pimples and pitfalls of this frightening passage, the transit commonly known as adolescence.”
However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman compared Slater to that of “a ratty, self-involved Michael J. Fox, works hard to give his on-the-air rants a nihilistic charge, but most of them sound like bad Beat poetry; all that's missing is the bongos.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, “You can admire Moyle's ambitions — he's out to fashion a metaphor for these troubled times the way Eric Bogosian did in Talk Radio — but Moyle doesn't have a trace of Bogosian's keen intelligence or abrasive wit. What he does have is Slater. It's almost enough.”
Moyle uses the film to address serious issues like suicide, bullying, pregnancy and homosexuality in an honest and heartfelt way that so many other teen movies at the time either refused to address, or, if they did, in a superficial way. His well-written screenplay doesn’t talk down to his target audience and in a refreshing notion assumes that they are smart enough to absorb the many ideas that the film explores. At times, it may seem a bit heavy-handed, especially with the cardboard cut-out authority figures compromised of clueless parents, an evil principal and a hack politician cum FCC representative, but I feel that this is done on purpose because at that age teens tend to see authority figures on those terms and not as real people. Moyle wants to wake up a teen audience weaned on safe, predictable teen movies – something that Pump Up the Volume is definitely not.
Pump Up the Volume was an important film for me growing up. Like Mark, I was raised in white suburbia and was taught not to question authority. By the time I saw Moyle’s film I was just starting to get into alternative rock music and so its eclectic soundtrack was a welcome addition to my musical education and one I embraced fully. The film’s premise was also an enticing bit of wish fulfillment and a lot my enjoyment came out of living vicariously through Mark’s exploits. It was also a gateway into a wonderful world of subversive culture, like Lenny Bruce. Pump Up the Volume still holds up with only the pirate radio aspect coming off as dated, technology-wise. The ideas and themes that it explores are still relevant, maybe more now than ever before as people are deeply unhappy with our school systems and our government. Our pop culture landscape is also a wasteland thanks to the glut of reality shows starring people who have become famous (or rather infamous) for doing nothing. Now, more than ever, we need someone like Hard Harry – or, with the proliferation of the Internet, a bunch of Hard Harries to wake people up, like the film’s optimistic conclusion with Mark’s ideas spreading like a virus through not just his city but the entire country.
NOTE: Some of my fave writers on the blogosphere have also written about this film. Check out Ferdy on Films, House of Self-Indulgence and Junta Juleil's Culture Shock for excellent musings on it.