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ICYMI: Pump Up The Volume (1990)


I’m an introvert and, to paraphrase Susan Cain’s best-seller The Quiet, have done my darndest to survive in a world that can’t stop talking. I grew up in a family full of extroverts and even when I wanted to speak and express myself, I could never get anyone’s attention: they were too busy talking. This isn’t an indictment about my upbringing; it’s just how I was raised and who I am today. It was a lonely way to exist and I do wish I had the guts to be more outgoing and outspoken but alas it was “the quiet life” for me.

It wasn’t until I saw 1990’s Pump Up The Volume that I had found my cinematic kindred spirit in Mark Hunter, played touchingly and charismatically by Christian Slater. The film is something of a throwback to the adolescent world that was gloriously nurtured by John Hughes, where angst-ridden teens try to find a way to survive in the face of constant peer pressure and adults that seemingly don’t understand.

The film follows Mark, who has recently moved across the country with his parents to suburban Arizona. Mark’s parents’ gift him a short-wave radio so that he can stay in touch with his East Coast friends (boy is this film due for a technological remake). But after what we can assume is a few weeks of being ignored, Mark has taken his parents’ industrial generosity and is broadcasting his own late-night ribald radio program under the moniker “Happy Harry Hard-On.”

Through “Harry,” Mark is able to speak with his own voice, ironically through a disguising device, be it his typical raging hormones by simulating masturbation or just being himself and conveying every fear and insecurity that he endures on a daily basis. Surprise, surprise there’s an entire high school audience aching to hear his every thought and sympathize with his universal truths.

Mark’s #1 fan just happens to be the same girl that he pines for in real life, Nora (a breakthrough Samantha Mathis). Mark can barely muster up a few words to her in real life but waxes achingly over the many poems she sends to his PO Box. The fact that Nora’s detective work is easy in a film where both the local cops and the FCC can’t locate Mark’s pirate operation can be overlooked. Slater and Mathis have amazing chemistry as young lovers leading double lives, trying to find the courage to just be themselves. The other main plot involves the school, spear-headed by a tenacious principal (Annie Ross), trying to purge itself of the “no-goodniks” for the sake of scholastic rankings. Mark and his show become a prime target as he spurs his listeners to fight the power, as it were.

One night, Mark takes a call from a suicidal student. Mark obviously has no professional training and doesn’t take the call as seriously as he should, even though the caller may already be past the point of no return. When the student kills himself, Mark becomes a scapegoat. Thankfully, Mark gets to redeem himself when a subsequently caller confesses his homosexuality and fears be outed. Mark is able to listen and hopefully show this kid this he is not alone. Pump Up The Volume was probably ahead of its’ time with its subject matter

and yet on recent viewing is perfectly timely.

I guess nowadays between social media, blogs and podcasts we all have a chance to express ourselves and find our voice. But a movie like Pump Up The Volume still has plenty to say in a world where it’s sometimes hard to get someone else to listen. Plus, it has a killer soundtrack.

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