Back to School – Pump up the Volume

Pump up the Volume

As the children of the world start to drip back into their education after the longest summer break in history, we at /G-f delve into our school related film favourites. For Back to School weekend Steve Taylor-Bryant remembers Pump up the Volume…

“I have no friends, no money, no car, no license. And even if I did have a license all I can do is drive out to some stupid mall. Maybe, if I'm lucky, play some fucking video games, smoke a joint and get stupid. You see, there's nothing to do anymore. Everything decent's been done. All the great themes have been used up. Turned into theme parks. So I don't really find it exactly cheerful to be living in the middle of a totally, like, exhausted decade where there's nothing to look forward to and no one to look up to.”

A while ago my esteemed colleague Mr Nate McKenzie mentioned High School and his favourite High School related films. I took a while to realise he meant Secondary School because he's unfortunately afflicted with being American but read his list anyway because a lot of the time he makes so much sense he's almost an honorary Brit. There was a couple I either didn't remember or hadn't seen but all in all was a pretty great list and I continued about my day. However something nagged at me. In his list, Nate had written his piece on each film and then finished with a stand out song from each soundtrack. This is where my nagging started, the music. When I was in school, the set up of relationships was the same as US schools. Bookworms and nerds, sports stars, popular girls and the like dominated those final years as they do on screen. I myself transferred across the groups as I played sport for the school making me a jock, I struggled with my dyslexia and took extra English lessons which put me in the nerdy group and I was also a drummer and, being the only one in my year, this instantly made me popular and with my father being a professional musician it was the musical side that defined my childhood and development as a young adult. This is why Nate’s inclusion of a song from the soundtrack resonated with me and also leads me onto a much forgotten film about School that introduced me to Leonard Cohen - Pump Up The Volume.

The 1990's tale of teen angst from writer/director Allan Moyle (Empire Records) sees Christian Slater as Mark Hunter, a new arrival in Arizona's Hubert Humphrey High, the shy kid with no friends after moving from the East Coast for his father’s work at the school. With a boring, depressing life, Hunter starts to broadcast on his shortwave radio which was meant to be able to communicate with his old friends. With Hunter thinking no one is listening he dons the persona of Happy Harry Hard-On and just starts to exorcise his personal demons. But people are listening. The Principal of Hubert Humphrey and her staff are appalled by the brashness of Harry and the fact he has information on the school that doesn’t exactly show them in a great light. There is an army of fans, each tuning in at 10pm to listen to Harry’s anarchic diatribe, or his choice of Leonard Cohen songs, or just to hear him simulate masturbation. Not much is wrong at the beginning until after a phone call with a listener, you include your number and Hard Harry will call you, when the young man takes his own life. This event gives the system a perfect enemy and they set about shutting him down, which causes a war with the disaffected youth who see Hard Harry as their voice, all culminating in a ridiculous chase scene with the FCC.

Pump up the Volume

“You hear about some kid who did something stupid, something desperate; what possessed him? How could he do such a terrible thing? Well, it's really quite simple, actually. Consider the life of a teenager - you have parents, teachers telling you what to do, you have movies, magazines and TV telling you what to do, but you know what you have to do. Your job, your purpose is to get accepted, get a cute girlfriend, think up something great to do with the rest of your life. What if you're confused and can't imagine a career? What if you're funny looking and can't get a girlfriend? You see, no-one wants to hear it. But the terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead.”

This film is not Heathers. This movie is more the bastard twin to a John Hughes film. The emotions and events the youth and Hunter are going through themselves are very real, all scenarios we ourselves have been through. Exclusion, bullying, sexual confusion, peer pressure and the like dominate the script in a way you would hope for young viewers to realise they are not alone. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, or perhaps as I’ve aged I’ve missed things, but the way the school react to the suicide, by blaming Hard Harry rather than investigating why one of their pupils was so depressed he saw no other option but to take his own life, doesn’t seem to have changed much in the 25 years since the film’s release. Eventually the system wins but not before the mini revolution has begun and the disaffected take to the mic’s themselves to save their friends and point out injustice in society in a mini-movie take on the punk movement.

Christian Slater is a very underrated actor in my opinion and, although I admit some of his film choices are baffling, he is pretty reliable in most things and excels in others. Were it not for his performance in True Romance then I would probably proclaim Pump Up The Volume his greatest on-screen appearance. He flicks from sad loner, bereft of confidence, almost embarrassed to be alive, to cocky, foul-mouthed pirate DJ with effortless grace and his smoky rasp of a voice really suits his Hard Harry moments and actually becomes quite creepy through the voice disguiser which adds an edge. Slater is not alone though and I don’t think just Hard Harry could have pulled this movie off (see, even I’m at it now) without help and Samantha Mathis as Nora is the perfect foil. The two stars of their generation that both could have and should have gone on to better things sort of remind me of Hunter and Nora in reality and maybe they had an inkling of what was to come, which is why they worked so perfectly together.

Whilst there are obvious and important factors throughout the film, there are also moments of pure comedic genius, downright filthy joke telling and some incredible music. I said at the top of this piece that Pump Up The Volume was my introduction to Leonard Cohen, I couldn’t get Everybody Knows out of my head, and this is a musical relationship I am still in but, alongside the deep resonating tones of Cohen, there were little gems of the era and some classics like Bad Brains, Ice-T, The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Descendants, Soundgarden, along with some favourite snippets from Cowboy Junkies and The Beastie Boys. I was just 16 years old when Pump Up The Volume was released. A young man already touched by suicide and the emotional scenarios covered in the film, trying to find my way in the world through music and, with the soundtrack, I found a little pot of musical gold. Please feel free to share your favourite moments in the comments… If It Be Your Will.

Image - IMDb.