Music on the Radio in the Movies: Pump Up the Volume (1990)

PUV German

Note: In honor of College Radio Day and a little old-fashioned cross-promotion, the good Professor let me interrupt the regularly scheduled program to help resurrect a movie that even he hasn’t seen.

In the 1990 Christian Slater vehicle Pump up the Volume, directed by Allan Moyle (master of the depressingly abysmal Empire Records), a world-wise and edgy teenager named Mark Hunter moves to an Arizonan suburb and sets up a pirate radio station. Under the nom de guerre Happy Harry Hard-On, our protagonist engages in such daring hijinks as pretending to masturbate on the radio, using profanity, speaking truth to power, and, of course, playing new and daring music like The Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, The Pixies and, the always threatening Leonard Cohen. The story continues as stories do: the new kid is a misfit whose secret identity gains a large following. The boy meets a girl (Samantha Mathis, yes, Super Mario Bros, 1993). She takes her shirt off.

But, of course, the movie can’t be all nudity and night-time radio. Slater’s character uses a device to disguise his voice and somehow gets listeners live on the air. One of his listeners calls in and asks if he should take his own life. When no one else in the world will take him seriously, it is Happy Harry Hard-on who tries to engage with the student who ends up taking his life, on the air, with scores of listeners to witness.

Of course, the shit hits the fan when radio shenanigans turn deadly. The adult authorities try to fasten some blame onto Happy Harry. As a result, adolescents love the show even more. Jocks, Geeks, and gunners alike act out in support of this radio-controlled anarchy. The FCC is called to intervene. Hot in pursuit, the Feds follow Hunter around as he broadcasts from the back of a jeep. Even as he is apprehended, the valiant hero tells his listeners to make their own fate, to “talk hard”. The movie closes with a montage of other youths and adults picking up microphones.

This movie is worth looking back on for a few reasons. First, its basic premise of introducing instability into a staid and stagnant suburb through the airwaves is now not merely anachronistic, it is quaint (but, not as quaint as the town that banned dancing in Footloose). Masturbation on the air? The internet brought it to desktops and cell phones. Dangerous music? The internet gives us child pornography, bomb designs and ricin recipes. A way to the desperate and lonely to connect? Chatrooms, Reddit, and fucking Pinterest. Shocking confessions, suicides, abuse et al? Internet. Internet. Internet.

The naïve spirit, quaint memory of a simpler world endangered by simpler things, and the pat plot, however, are not all that commend this movie. No, this is also worth witnessing for its representation of a psychotic and nearly inexplicable phenomenon: the rise of Christian Slater whose pop culture good looks almost explain his ‘star’ turn in Heathers, his saccharine and maudlin portrayal of a man with a baboon heart (a baboon heart!) in the Marisa Tomei co-starred Untamed Heart (1993) or even the cop movie Kuffs (1992). But how did he end up in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) or starring in a bad biopic of Lucky Luciano (Mobsters, 1991)?

Couldn't find a picture of him pretending to masturbate...

Couldn’t find a picture of him pretending to masturbate…

(True story: my sister had a life-sized cardboard cutout of Christian Slater from Kuffs for a year or two. Where the hell did that guy come from? Can we blame it on his show-biz parents?. Other horrors: Slater was in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and yet the franchise recovered…)

Mocking Slater aside, I found myself thinking of this movie recently while writing a post on my own blog about independent radio. I have a romantic memory, a nostalgic spasm, over this movie for a few reasons. First, even though I have a blog, play with twitter, and basically engage in all of the nonsense of the 21st Century digital boys, I still remember the pre-digital age with a nostalgia that is part aging process and part reflection on the attention-deficit, multitasking slavery of the modern media paradigm. Slater’s protagonist offers the promise of the connection offered by the internet on a smaller, simpler scale, a scale I remember and can conceive of.

I also was shocked to find out how little money this movie made. See, I watched Pump Up the Volume at least half a dozen times between the years of 1991 and 1995 as a range of girlfriends and friends with Christian Slater obsessions returned to it and as I continued to identify with it the misfit’s protests (however feeble), the connection made through non-mainstream music, and the formative experience of inhabiting and fostering outsider status.

Twenty-three years later, this movie is not just anachronistic, it is also a bit corny. It is a hammily acted, briskly written, teen angst B-movie. But, at the same time, like many movies of the period, it stands as a testament to how fast our world changed and what we take for granted now. Sure, we are always connected and we don’t need a Happy Harry Hard-on to challenge our taboos. But we still want there to be someone out there who listens to us. And in the internet age, there may just be too much noise for anyone to hear.

(Editor’s note: This is the first guest post from the Elder J, a good friend and old roommate who I once gave the short lived nickname “Pahoo” after a viewing of Creature from Black Lake. The Elder J was something of a civilian when it came to truly strange/terrible films, or at least I liked to think so then when I was introducing him to the wonders of films like Blood Feast-but then again he’s somehow seen legendary Italian post apocalypse/killer rat crapfest Rats: Night of Terror and I haven’t. J was more of a music guy, and from his CDs I first heard Kiss Me Son of God and Song for the Dumped. He now runs a wonderful music blog thebrothersj with his younger brother (The Younger J). Be sure to check it out!)

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5 comments on “Music on the Radio in the Movies: Pump Up the Volume (1990)

  1. […] Other horrors: Slater was in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and yet the franchise recovered…) … found myself thinking of this movie recently while writing a post on my own blog about independent… …read more […]

  2. T.A. Gerolami says:

    I wouldn’t say I exactly haven’t seen it-I certainly saw parts of it. I feel my brother was a fan. I do remember when this was on cable every day, which means I probably shouldn’t be a surprise it wasn’t a hit.

    The career of Christian Slater certainly is one of those things. I’m not sure how it happened, but that list of titles you rattled off certainly shows how hot he was for a while. Should have known he was from the biz. As to Mobsters? That one is easy…Young Guns made a lot of money.

  3. theelderj says:

    Young Guns was pretty funny. And, I have to admit, Slater isn’t completely hateful, but his acting is, well, limited.

    That Mobsters thing was really crap. And Untamed Heart? You have to see it to (dis)believe it.

    • T.A. Gerolami says:

      I’ve always heard the worst about Mobsters and avoided it thus far. But as a bit of archaeology, it might make for an entertaining afternoon. Untamed Heart even more so.

  4. theelderj says:

    Reblogged this on thebrothersj and commented:
    The good Professor Mortis, a sometime contributor to this blog, was kind enough to have me as a guest-blogger on his. As you can see from this entry and the next, I had Slater on the mind.

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