You thought it was awesome in 1990 – and you were right.
In 1990, I was 8. Clearly, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the snarky sassitude and sociological rebelliousness of Pump Up the Volume when it came out – but thank goodness I caught this one in my 20’s because it is great!
Quick setup for the noobs: A quiet suburban town has A) an extremely high performing high school; B) an abnormal number of expelled students; and C) a new kid, who pirates a radio frequency every night at 10pm, in which he rants about the weird oppressive culture at his school. Students start paying attention, shit gets real, people get fired, freakouts, dancing, the FCC, graffiti, romance, etc. It’s great.
You should revisit this gem, and here’s why:
- Christian Slater at his best. Slater’s protagonist – Mark/Hard Harry – is equal parts devilishly devious smartass and bookish, misunderstood genius… playing to all of Slater’s strengths at once. He is the guy – the one who is intensely cool and interesting underneath his mysterious, aloof shyness – that you hoped to meet as a nervous high school sophomore… and unlike his character in Heathers the year before, underneath his mystery and outlandishness, he’s a champion of the people, a fighter for justice (instead of a murderer).
- The unreasonably amazing soundtrack. This was pre-Nirvana, pre-Pearl Jam. Biggest radio hits of the year included Ice Ice Baby and U Can’t Touch This. Milli Vanilli lyp-synced their way into the hearts of the populous and Gloria Estefan was a big deal in pop music. This was a weird, weird time. And somehow this movie produces one of the best soundtracks ever. Featuring my two favorite Leonard Cohen songs prominently (Christian Slater actually stops the action to listen to both of them IN the MOVIE), The Descendants, The Beastie Boys, The Pixies, Sonic Youth – I mean Jesus! This soundtrack kicks so much ass… and it’s hugely important to the movie’s plot, which makes it even cooler.
- An actually interesting girl to fall for. Samantha Mathis is Nora/Poetry lady – the curious girl who puts together the pieces and figures out Hard Harry’s true identity. It’s rare to find an interesting female love interest in an 80’s-90’s high school movie – she’s smart, creative, powerful, sexy, knows what she wants and goes for it. And she and Christian Slater create the best strained, nervous, palpable kissing tension… eek! So good.
- Steal the Air. Even though the idea of hosting a pirate radio show now feels like a charming relic of the ancient past – the reverberations of the themes here… of finding a place to use your voice, to broadcast your ideas, to call out the people in power, to say something – are 100% relevant. Right now, with this golden age of net neutrality starting to crumble at the edges, it’s even more important that us regular people carve out our space of the online world to be weirdos – and that we do what we can to protect our right to do so.
- This is a movie set in a high school, in 1990. Biker shorts with peace signs, vests, boom boxes, “dancing is a privilege”, sweaters, mullets, pink bedrooms, corded phones, bangs, I could go on and on. And there’s lots of profanity. It’s so much fun.
– betsy midnight