Pump Up the Volume

Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz! I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Christian Slater” with a minor in “Teen Angst”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!

This week Supercult decides to make ’em think we’re crazy, Pumps Up the Volume and immediately blows his speakers out.

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When Mark Hunter’s family makes the move from the East coast to a drab suburb in Arizona things seem like they couldn’t get any worse. But Mark has a secret outlet for his teenage angst: a pirate FM radio station he operates out of his parent’s basement. By day Mark is a loner and an outsider, but by night he is “Happy Harry Hard-on”, the irrepressible voice of his fellow teens! Mark never thought that his secret hobby would ever mean anything, but as he becomes more and more popular and influential, Mark realizes the impact one voice can make. Steal the Air! This is Pump up the Volume!

Canadian writer and director Allan Moyle is an unconventional filmmaker. Starting his career as an independent sometimes writing, directing, producing, and acting in his own films, he made his first foray into mainstream Hollywood with Times Square (1980) a coming of age story about a pair of teenage runaways who form a punk rock band. His introduction to the big time was made complete when he clashed with producer Robert Stigwood in the editing room. Stigwood wanted to remove dialogue scenes and replace them with more musical sequences so that the accompanying soundtrack could be expanded to a double-album. When Moyle refused, Stigwood fired him and made the edits himself. It took nearly a decade before Moyle gathered up his pride and returned to the industry, this time with a new screenplay adapted from Moyle’s unpublished novel: Pump Up the Volume.

For his latest teen angst come-drama, Moyle needed an actor who had “glee, to be ineffably sweet and at the same time demonic.” Moyle described the protagonist as an amalgam of Holden Caulfeld, the teenage protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and Lenny Bruce, the controversial American stand-up comic, satirist, and social critic, and the “Hard Harry” persona as a guy who “has to get credibility as an outsider. As the last angry man on the planet, he has to use the foulest language he can think of. He even pretends to masturbate on the air. He’s obsessed with sex and death.” So you know…a teenager.

Enter Christian Slater.

Slater stars in Pump Up the Volume, which was released in 1990, just 1 year after his role as Nick Woods in the Supercult Classic, The Wizard. Starring alongside him in her debut role is Samantha Mathis as Nora Diniro, a fellow student who decides to track down the real Happy Harry, and a host of other totally less hip adult actors and actresses like Andy Romano (who made his debut in Beach Party, the predecessor of Supercult Classic Pajama Party), Scott Paulin (who played Red Skull in the Supercult Classic Captain America (1990)), and Ellen Greene (who played Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, which would be a Supercult Classic if it weren’t…you know…actually a good movie).

Pump Up the Volume was a pivotal role for Slater to say the least. Just one year later he would later star alongside Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, then later starring roles in True Romance and Interview with the Vampire. On the set of Pump Up the Volume however, things were a bit bumpy. During production Christian Slater had his driver’s license suspended for the second time in two years over DUIs, and writer-director Allan Moyle had to retool the script accordingly. Lead character Mark Hunter doesn’t drive, tells his listeners he has “no car, no license”, and goes everywhere on foot.

Pump Up the Volume’s antagonist is the high school principal Mrs. Cresswood who keeps the school’s SAT scores up by eliminating poor students and harassing kids into line. The school in the film, Hubert Humphry High, was based on a Montreal high school where Moyle’s sister used to teach, that according to Moyle, had a principal “who had a pact with the staff to enhance the credibility of the school scholastically at the expense of the students who were immigrants or culturally disabled in some way or another.” In fact, this type of activity is quite common, especially in high-end charter schools that flout their college acceptance rates and standardized test scores and downplay their nearly 25% attrition rate. When two characters argue the point saying, “Can’t you understand that nothing is more important than a good education?” “Except the basic right to it,” the dialogue seems oddly at home nearly two decades later.

Slater’s performance propelled the film, and though it is said that Slater became physically ill several times during filming due to all the cigarette smoking he had to do, the film would’ve literally evaporated without him. What could have been a min-numbing series of angsty monologues punctuated by scenes of idiotic and overly dramatic teens fighting ‘the man’ instead becomes an oddly poignant reminder of what it is to be young, lonely, and all at once the most and least powerful person in your own life. Pump Up the Volume is about the journey from being isolated and individualistic to being part of a community and delivers upon this arc through the high school community galvanized by Mark’s broadcast. What starts all too familiar cliques and pods separated by social status, test scores, fashion sense, and seniority becomes a cohesive group bound together by similar interests and common goals. And when we hear, “You’re the voice,” we know that the film is talking to us, reminding us of our responsibility both to ourselves and to everyone around us.

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Pump Up the Volume initially failed at the box office, grossing only $1.6 million in its opening weekend. However, with favorable critic reviews and good word of mouth, the film went on to be a sleeper success grossing $11.5 million in the end. The film Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote “…Pump Up the Volume doesn’t know how to draw out its premise, once that premise has been thoroughly explored. As the film accelerates toward its conclusion, the strands of its clever plot are too hastily and perfunctorily resolved…Working within the confines of the teen-age genre film, however, Pump Up the Volume still succeeds in sounding a surprising number of honest, heartfelt notes.”

Pump Up the Volume has a 7.1 on IMDB and 79% on Rotten Tomatoes and is chock full of corny contrivances, dramatic and conveniently timed confrontations and all. But what it lacks in structure or believability it makes up for in its heartfelt message that resonates for anyone who has every felt screwed up at a screwed up time in a screwed up place, but was determined not to BE screwed up.

Talk Hard Supercultists…

The Supercult Show is proud to present Pump up the Volume!

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