By Danny Bowes
(Editor's Note: As a second installment in our revisiting-old-totems, we have the wonderful Danny Bowes stepping up to bat, with a piece about discovering that one of his favorite films might not hold up as well as he had hoped:)
There is a sense, between the ages of 13 and 19, that all of human history has led to this, to now, that the present is the fulcrum between what was and what shall be. The future is alternately vague, ignored, or terrifying. Even the past is of interest only for having led to the now, which is all there is, because even more than other times in one's life, the teenage years are a time of extreme focus on present-tense self. The development of adult-level cognitive abilities coincide with being slammed by an array of hormones leads to everything being at times unbearably vivid. On top of the basic physiological chaos, my own teenage years were complicated by the (fairly standard) matter of my parents having divorced, as well as some (somewhat less standard) complications with regards to sexual orientation; nothing so simple as “gay” or “straight” over here. (That particular ship eventually ran aground somewhere in the suburbs of the latter, but as any city-dweller will tell you, the suburbs are not the city.) Topping the whole mess off was a natural tendency toward hyper-ratiocinative brooding. All of this is why, for a considerable portion of my teenage years, Pump Up The Volume was one of my favorite movies.
Canadian writer-director Allan Moyle's breakthrough feature, Pump Up The Volume is a jittery, brooding younger first cousin to John Hughes' iconic cycle of suburban teen movies, with a far better record collection. The soundtrack is an extremely important element in Pump Up The Volume, not simply because it's a movie about a pirate radio DJ, but because it consists in great part of formally challenging songs, many of which feature EXPLICIT LYRICS (a huge hot-button issue in 1990). This mirrors the movie's theme of finding the courage to speak, and to speak truth. Obviously there isn't a universal one-to-one relationship between telling the truth and cursing, but to quote hip-hop don Redman, speaking indirectly but perfectly to this issue some years later, “If you say 'fuck me,' I'ma say 'fuck you.'”
In the movie itself, protagonist Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) takes inspiration from Lenny Bruce's memoir How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. That inspiration ends up being a bit on the nose, as that's literally how Mark spends his evenings: having recently been forcibly relocated from the East Coast by his father taking a job in suburban Arizona, Mark uses the ham radio equipment his parents bought him so he could communicate with his friends back home (even by these pre-Internet standards, a dumb idea) to set up shop on an unused FM radio frequency, whereupon Mark adopts the persona of “Happy Harry Hard-on” and every night at 10 pm alternates between holding forth philosophically, making sex and masturbation jokes, reading listener letters, and spinning (mostly) obscure records. Mark, so painfully shy he can barely speak to anyone face to face, becomes an inspiration to his similarly inhibited classmates, developing (even before the movie starts) a devoted cult following. In the grand tradition of sticking it to The Man, Mark pilfers an internal memo from his school administrator father and reads it out to his listeners, going as far as calling the guidance counselor who sent the (rather sanctimonious) memo at his home. This gets the attention of the school's authoritarian principal (Annie Ross), whose crackdown on any student caught with taped recordings of “Harry”'s show or spray-painting quotes from it on the walls ends up provoking a full-scale rebellion.
What's more, the story has Mark inadvertently stumble on actual criminal practices at the school. In order to maintain elite average test scores, the principal has been quietly expelling students whose scores would bring down that average. To a teenager, this is catnip. “Not only does school suck, but it's actually a criminal conspiracy? I KNEW IT!” Add a cool but relatable hero, a quirky-but-gorgeous erotica-writing love interest (Samantha Mathis), and that terrific soundtrack and it's pretty much the perfect movie for a teenager in the early 90s.
Around the 15th anniversary of its release, I revisited Pump Up The Volume and absolutely hated it. Clunky direction, on-the-nose dialogue delivered awkwardly, very young people being very certain that they're right about everything, the unearned supremacy of self....and oh the fucking whining. This was, to clarify, as much an emotional, uncritical reaction to the movie as my initial love for it. My associations with Pump Up The Volume were were more with who I was when watching it than they were the movie itself. And who I was, toward my later teenage years, was a shithead who drank every day and gobbled whatever drugs he could get his hands on. This lasted throughout college, where the number of days I was sober(ish) were so few and far between I can point to an exact reason for nearly every one (that I can remember, that is). Now, it should be noted that Pump Up The Volume is hardly an endorsement of drugs and booze, aside from its casual, normal-for-its-time portrayal of smoking as fashion statement. It is, however, a movie sympathetic to the idea of escape from the bewilderment and frustration of being young. Having only just (and not very securely) slammed the door shut on my drug taking, I was a bit unfairly angry at my teenage self for not immediately being able to deal with emotional pain, and for not buckling down and being exactly the kind of responsible dorky aspirant to mainstream society I'd despised in my teenage years. I was, in effect, LARPing the Faces' single “Ooh La La” (you know, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” that one). And that's bullshit. The whole point of being young is not knowing anything. That's how you learn stuff.
When it was time to write this piece, I watched Pump Up The Volume again, with no small amount of dread from the lingering memory of the last time. It was thus a bit of a surprise that it actually isn't nearly that bad. It finally dawned on me that it wasn't that I realized I'd been wrong about the movie the previous time, it was re-directed overly harsh self-criticism. To put it another way, I can wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger all I like, but that wish can only ever be a wish. Time is the great educator.
As for the movie itself, it's a sincere piece of work that takes the concerns of its teenaged target audience very, very seriously. It uses music—both Cliff Martinez's tres-late 80s score and the terrific songs—to excellent effect. Christian Slater's performance in the leads doesn't connect emotional extremes convincingly, but his teenage Lenny Bruce act on the radio and his near-mute bespectacled public persona are effective on their own. The other performances are at the mercy of underwritten or painfully subtext-free dialogue, and the script half-asses the school corruption business (shifting the blame for institutional corruption onto renegade individuals is, after all, how institutions solidify their power and calcify into uselessness; on the other hand, over-simplifying problems is something young people do all the time, so there's that). It is, on its technical merits, not a great movie.
But there's one brief passage that is absolutely perfect. For background, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis end up becoming romantically involved, being, after all, the leads. One night Samantha Mathis goes over to Christian Slater's house (where, of course, he hosts his radio show) and they both end up topless, a cross-gender/orientation delight. Fun as it is though, that's not the perfect bit. The next day, when they run into each other at school, is. The previous night's boldness and nudity (both physicial and emotional) is gone, and for a minute or so the camera simply lingers on what's almost literally a dance sequence, of two young people just being OMG holy shit into each other. That particular thing is so specifically of the teenage years, where attraction and sex and romance are exhilarating and new and everything is so intense it becomes all of existence and all there is is now. It's not that that feeling goes away when you grow up, it just happens less often, and it never quite feels as OMG holy shit amazing as it does when it's brand new and you have no perspective on it yet.
That's why, to borrow the grandiose melodrama of teenage pronouncements on culture, Pump Up The Volume, for all its dated signifiers and artistic shortcomings, is adolescence: sometimes it's great, sometimes it sucks, it's consumed by music and sex, and it's an intensely personal thing not everyone's going to get. Pump Up The Volume, its very existence beholden to the pre-Internet era, is a thing of the past, like adolescence to people my age. But the movie and the memories both are always there to revisit.
Danny Bowes is an actor, playwright, filmmaker, and film critic whose work has appeared in Premiere, Indiewire, and The Atlantic; he reviews new science-fiction/fantasy releases at Tor.com and blogs at Movies By Bowes.