Review: Pump Up the Volume (1990)

The Thinker by Rodin

Mark Hunter, a.k.a. Harry Hard-on, and played by Christian Slater, is a recent transplant to Arizona and Hubert H. Humphrey High School. He’s not exactly fitting in well with locals, or his teachers, or the students, or even his parents. He does go to school and does his best to keep his head down and to talk to no one. Mostly he pines for his friends back east, so much so that his father (the new superintendent of public schools) bought him a short wave radio to communicate with his friends back east. But his friends back east seem to have moved on.

In Pump Up the Volume, Mark Hunter earnestly wants to rebel but he can’t find the courage to do it in public, and certainly not with his parents, who he is pissed off at for making him move. So he holes himself in their basement as much as he can, and converts his shortwave radio into an illegal FM radio station. The mousy Mark becomes “Harry Hard-on” on his illegitimate radio station. At 10 p.m. he entertains using his underpowered transmitter to a narrow range of people who might be listening locally.

“Harry” is an irreverent DJ, that’s for sure. He laces his sentences with expletives and fills his shows with fake sequences wherein he pretends to masturbate on the air. Mom and Dad seem pretty clueless, but want to give him space. Mark simply wants to vent from the safety of his basement to what turns out to be a small but dedicated fan base of students at HHH high school. While the school is known to have the best SAT scores in the state, Mark channels the apathy and anger of its students who realize that their high school in many ways is run by Cruella de Vil.

If the plot seems kind of nuts in our modern day, you have to remember this is 1989. It’s a pre-Internet, or at least pre World Wide Web era, as evidenced by the TSR-80 in Mark’s basement along with his shortwave and stack of cassette tapes. Back then without smartphones, Facebook pages and text messages, this was what you worked with. Mark is nothing else if not audacious and even Howard Stern would not touch some of the topics in his broadcasts. Unquestionably though Mark has hit a nerve. Although he does not talk much with anyone at HHH High, they can relate to his brassy irreverence and his willingness to transgress all boundaries.

One of his biggest fans is Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis), who tunes into every show and send him letters on red paper to his post office box (yes, this was before the days when most people had email accounts). Mark will call people who send him snail mail if they leave their phone number, and he will call people he shouldn’t, like the guidance counselor at HHH High. His illicit radio station consequently quickly attracts the attention of the school’s administration, particularly the iron-fisted redheaded school principle, Mrs. Creswood (Annie Ross). She has a reputation to maintain, and that is for academic excellence. It is achieved, we eventually learn, through some cruel and unorthodox techniques. Let’s just say the students at HHH have some legitimate grievances with their administration.

Harry Hard-on’s show goes viral at the school, to the point that his motto becomes a banner on the school’s bulletin boards. The show attracts the attention of the local TV station, which sends a reporter to cover the story. The only mystery is: who is Harry Hard-on? It takes his devoted fan Nora, meticulously recording key facts that he reveals in his show, to figure out who he is.

Meanwhile each show makes Mark more vulnerable to discovery while tensions grow to a boiling point at HHH. As the local TV station latches on to the story, it naturally attracts more attention, including the Federal Communications Commission, which sends some vans full of gear to locate the illicit antenna. It turns out that it is convenient to have Nora as a friend because she can drive his parents’ Jeep. Using its battery he is able to rig his shortwave, making for a portable radio station. You can guess that he can’t keep his identity a secret forever; otherwise there would be little plot here.

For a rebellious teen movie, this one is one of the better ones although it is clearly dated. “Harry” ends with a plea for everyone to set up illegitimate radio stations. That was so, like, 20th century! Anyone can do that now for free on the Internet, although it’s likely most of these “stations” have few if any listeners.

Overall, the movie is surprisingly adult. It received an R rating, which meant that most who this movie was targeted at could not actually see it when it was playing in theaters. There is a semi-nude scene where Nora takes off her top, but curiously it’s easier for her to get half naked than for Nora and Mark to make the leap to their first kiss.

For a movie about teenage rebellion and angst, it’s perhaps equally a movie about how difficult it is to connect in any meaningful way when you are a teenager, or to be your authentic self when you are constantly hassled over grades and SAT scores. In public Mark acts a lot like Clark Kent, but he is no superman when he is broadcasting in his basement, just an upfront and confused teenager who quickly realizes his quirky “show” attracts a lot of other very confused teenagers that he attempts to awkwardly counsel.

If you can ignore the outdated technology and a rather predictable plot, the movie actually works quite well. Mark is easy to relate to and if you’ve been through adolescence you know his perspective is authentic. It’s not quite Rebel Without a Cause, but Mark kind of channels his spirit in a repressed late 1980s kind of way.

3.1 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

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