Montreal Film Journal

PUMP UP THE VOLUME

"Pump Up the Volume" is one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen. We gotta be grateful it achieved to even get made. Maybe we gotta thank Christian Slater, whose clout might have helped pass this red hot material by the thick-headed Hollywood types. But still, the movie was merely a bleep on the pop culture radar. In our world where box-office tallies are viewed as an indication of a movie's worth and where quality means phony awards like the Oscars, a brilliant piece like this is often overlooked. But we're there. You're there. Make the effort. Find a video store carrying the film and rent it, or better: buy it!

I discovered this movie almost by mistake. Alienated freak that I am, I often stay up late at night, perched alone in the somber world of my thoughts. The later I stay up, the later I'll wake up and the less time I'll have to spend in the so-called real world, taking it from the Man. Anyway, some glory night I caught "Pump Up the Volume" on TV, at midnight or something, and what a kick in the balls it was. I was totally riveted by this amazing flick; finally I had found a movie that yelled the things boiling inside of me, the things I'm sure tons of teenagers are thinking but keep to themselves. Why? Why not open up and tell the world that something's wrong? I mean come on, screw teen angst. That's bullshit buzz lingo. Why would people be okay all their lives, except at a specific age where they go insane? No way man. What causes so-called teen angst is the stupid system they cram you into. High school is hell. Not only do you have your parents trying to think for you, but now you got teachers and guidance counselors and principals getting into the game.

More often than not, they don't even know what they're talking about. They're not in your head, they can't know what's going on in there. I used to be a Grade A student, not making too much brouhaha, keeping quiet. Oh, I was a picture perfect student, right? Reality check, old man! If you only knew what I thought of all your crap! I guess I'm kinda bright, and tried to do stuff good. And being shy, I didn't even speak to much anyone, so how am I supposed to cause trouble? Why do school "officials" think that the ideal young person is the one all quiet and serious? Some of us are like that not to please you, but because we're ostracized, because we don't fit in. When I was 13 or 14, I was soooo alone. I'm telling ya, if it wasn't for my love of movies, I might have bailed from this life. Not out of depression, or anger, or any stupid reason grown-ups imagine. I wasn't confused or anything. Oh, no, Buster, it was all too clear. "Teen angst" is the point where, out of the innocence of childhood, you realize how inconsequential life is. At 12 or 13, you start realizing how little a difference it would make if you were gone. How stupid it is to be in a society that puts all these worries in your head, oh Mom wants me to do this, I gotta do that for school, study that thing I don't care about, learn a stupid oral presentation, make a goddamn nativity scene in wood for some pointless class.... It gets to the point where you're just doing stuff that you don't even know why you're doing.

I'm gonna try to link this with the movie, because I'm seriously losing myself here! Ok, in the film, Christian Slater plays Mark Hunter, a 17 year old guy whose parents just put through one of the hardest things a kid can go through: moving to the other end of nowhere. Just getting to high school is hard enough, with all the new faces and stuff, and it's even more difficult if they take you away to some town in Arizona, far from the New York you were brought up in and the few friends you had there. Mark's dad's not that bad a guy, but he's still part of the system. He's a school commissioner, and he's blind to the reality of high school. All he sees is that the school Mark goes to is top rated in the state, so it's gotta be great. What he doesn't know is that the principal is a heinous bitch who treats her students like shit and kills their free spirit, making them miserable little creatures who just try to fit in. And if they don't, they get the boot.

Mark is one of the movie characters I relate to the most. He's so full of potential and talent, he has so much to say, but everything around him traps his ideas somewhere in his throat. He can't talk to people or look them in the eyes, let alone approach girls... I used to be that kind of guy, but I found a way out. At around 16 or so, I realized I didn't have to be miserable. Okay, the system is hammering you with rules and hassle, but there's one thing they can't get to: your mind. In your mind, you can say you're God and believe it. If you want to, you can decide you're strong and untouchable. You can laugh at everyone else, you don't have to feel bad about it. This is a realization people have to make to escape, to survive from high school, or else you might make a real mistake and kill yourself, or put on a trenchcoat and shoot your schoolmates. Don't do that! Put away the guns, and use your brain. Stop caring about what other people think. Don't stop yourself from doing something because you're told it's not right. Go crazy, kick out the jams. Listen to music despite the parental advisory, pump up the volume, have premarital sex, ditch some classes, smoke grass, drink yourself silly, say shit and fuck. Laugh at people who think they're your better. They're probably even more self-conscious than you are. How hard is it to decide to be in a good mood, like Lloyd Dobbler would say. That's what I did, and I made it out of high school okay.

What Mark Hunter does to let off some steam is play around with his radio equipment. He got it to talk to his buddies back East but couldn't reach them. Never mind, he started talking anyway. On the air, he's anonymous, he's just a voice. He's Happy Harry Hard-On, host of a pirate radio nightly program, in which he tells it like it is, makes mock masturbation sounds, play bitching old school hip hop and punk rock (Ice-T, the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth...). If you air it, they will come... And they do! Before long, half the school discover this unique show and become avid listeners, which fuels his fire. He gets a private postal box and has his fans sending him letters, and then reads them on the air. And if they write their number, he calls them and let them finally express what's bugging them. Happy Harry becomes the voice of lost youth, the guy who helps them realize they're not alone. His message is not that complicated, but it's sincere. Truth is so rare that it's refreshing when finally someone stops bullshitting.

The film takes up from there and uses this premise to blow the roof off the dump. Do I need to got through the details of the plot? I'm afraid it would only take away some of the movie's impact. Buy the video and let it rock your world. "Pump Up the Volume" was written and directed by Allan Moyle. It doesn't really matter where he's from, but I'm still proud that I was born in the same city as him, Montreal, Quebec. Our people are real cool, we're kind of like Americans but with a more easygoing European vibe. This might not be obvious watching his work, but I enjoy the little touches, like the use of songs from fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen. Anyway, you might know Moyle for his latest directorial effort, "Empire Records", which is entertaining but a huge letdown from this earlier film. His film is not as much exceptional for its direction, nonetheless dynamic and efficient, but for the strength of the writing. There isn't a line that feels forced in the movie or an idea that feels restrained. The movie takes you and spins you till you don't know what's what. There are moments so screamingly, intensely uplifting that I was about to jump up and punch the walls! This is one of these movies I have to go back to over and over to remind myself of where it's at. "Pump Up the Volume" shows you that while life can suck, "so be it". Fight back and talk hard!

The film might remind you of "Talk Radio", another film that affected me profoundly. Adapted from an Eric Bogosian play by Oliver Stone, that film addresses many important issues in America with honesty and intelligence, and never fails to make you think. "Pump Up the Volume" aims a bit lower than that, but I personally feel closer to it. It might seem like high school is just that little thingie in life, but I feel that it's like a miniature version of society in general. What Happy Harry Hard-On is saying about school relates to the whole world basically. There's no age to be stuck in a situation where others are controlling you and restraining the real you. So kudos to Allan Moyle, and more respect to Christian Slater, who's sometimes seen as just a superficial B-list actor for some of the stupid movies he's in, but he did get involved in one of the best movies of the 90s. "Pump Up the Volume" is about such esssential things as rebellion, individuality and free speech. You owe it yourself to watch it regularly.