"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pump Up the Volume

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.


Goldstein, Patrick. “He’s Up, He’s Down, He’s Up Again.” Los Angeles Times. August 19, 1990.

Portman, Jamie. “Movie Views Cruel World of Today’s Teenage Angst.” Toronto Star. August 22, 1990.

Scott, Jay. “Festival of Festivals in Person.” Globe and Mail. September 12, 1990.


  1. Good stuff! I tackled this earlier on in the year. Easily my favorite Slater film, which is saying something since the dude had some heavy hitters back in the day. Needs a Blu-ray release badly.

  2. I loved this movie as a teenager; I haven't seen it in a while but you've made me want to revisit it!
    I remember wishing something like the ending,where everyone has been inspired, would happenin my own little surburban town and I even contemplated becoming a 'pirate radio guy' (as I thought of it back then) myself... obviously, things like girls got in the way...

    Great, entertaining movie and the kind of thing that could never be remade. It just wouldn't work in the digital age (even though podcasting is the nearest we have).

    Great article!

  3. I absolutely love this movie. I saw it in the theater when it was first released. I was far, far too young to actually buy a ticket for it, so my cousins and I all paid for Ghost Dad with Bill Cosby and then snuck into the theater playing Pump Up The Volume. It actually felt MORE right to subversively sneak into this movie than to watch it on the up-and-up.

    Great write-up.

  4. I like to think of myself as a Hard Harry of the blogsphere ha ha ha, but yeah, I love this one. It has that acid, subversive vibe I love from films that like to tell it like it is. Films like these have become scarce...wheres the teenage films that had an edge to them nowadays? They were so popular during the 80's and 90's...now not so much. Back then youth embraced films like this one because they vented how the youth felt.

    A similar film which was mentioned in a quote you mentioned is Oliver Stones Talk Radio, not many people have seen this obscure Oliver Stone flick, but it has the same edge to it, and same as Pump Up the Volume, the rebel, the person unafraid to talk about realities gets the shaft from the system, most of the time, characters like these simply do not have a happy ending. I guess its a way filmmakers let people know that should they choose to live this kind of rebellious lifestyle, the system will eventually come and bite them in the ass.

    Cool review man!

  5. This was one of the films I grew up watching during the 1990s. I was a real outsider in school and didn't fit in. This film definitely connected me with and I love that soundtrack.

  6. Love it!- nice to see you tackle one of my favorites. This one seems to have riled up a lot of impressionable imaginations over the years and I share your lament on the scarcity of real-life Hard Harries in recent times. Talk hard!

    (And thank you for the shout-out!)

  7. Eric King:

    It sure does need a Blu-Ray release! Hopefully next year. This is probably my fave Slater film as well. He gets it just right. Thanks for stopping by!


    Yeah, this film certainly played into a wish fulfillment of being able to do the cool things that Slater does in this film. It made a huge impression on me when I first saw it and has aged quite well.

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Jonny Metro:

    Hah. Good story! Sneaking into the film definitely was in keeping with the subversive nature of the film itself. Thanks for stopping by.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    I agree with you re: teenage films nowadays. They seem to lack any kind of edge that a film like this or RIVER'S EDGE did back in the day. Of course, they were rare also. As you say, they reflected the times and so that's why they were popular.

    Good to see you mentioned TALK RADIO. I wanted to draw more parallels to Stone's film but just couldn't get it together.

    Great comments, my friend!


    Yes, the soundtrack is incredible. Such a great selection of bands with songs that fit so perfectly with the film itself.

    Sean Gill:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the great comments! Actually, your review motivated me to write one of my own. It just took forever to finally figure out what I wanted to say.

  8. This still my favorite teen film of all time.