“Eat your cereal with a fork, and do your homework in the dark.”
There’s a hierarchy of high school movies. They come in all shapes and sizes, some serious, some ridiculous. Some intelligent, some idiotic. Some fun, some disturbing. The best ones, like The Breakfast Club or Can’t Hardly Wait, use different techniques to accomplish the same thing — to give the film and its characters a sense of realness, to make that teen angst sympathetic in a way that enables you to care about being a teenager, even when you aren’t anymore.
1990’s Pump Up The Volume is one of the best ones.
If I were thinking of ideas for Pajiba’s Underappreciated Gems, at some point Pump Up The Volume would certainly make its way onto my list. It’s an underlooked but incredibly smart film that avoids many of the conventional teenager flick pitfalls. Instead, it takes a frank, open look at the bored suburban teen malaise that seems so sophomoric when we examine it as adults, but as kids, it seemed like life or death. As most of us probably remember (and some of our younger readers may be currently experiencing), high school, regardless of where it is, can be a fucking trial.
Instead of trivializing those trials, it gives the viewer an insight into why they’re so important to teenagers, and why the worst thing you can do when a kid is upset is to belittle those concerns. These issues — school, girls, boys, pressure, fitting in — are quite real when you’re young, and when kids are left ignored or their fears and concerns are derided, it can lead them to some pretty dark places sometimes. Pump Up the Volume plays into that theme.
The synopsis: Pump Up The Volume is about a cripplingly shy, pretty smart introvert named Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), a kid whose smarmy, former radical but now fully established father (Scott Paulin) uprooted from New York and moved to the sleepy suburb of Mesa, Arizona. Mark attends Hubert H. Humphrey High, a school whose administration is more concerned with test scores and public perception than it is with actual education. It’s a stifling, stressful environment which leads to Mark taking to the airwaves using a pirate radio station under the radio nom de guerre of “Happy Harry Hard-On,” or “Hard Harry” for short. In his role as Hard Harry, Mark speaks to the kids of HHH High, and through letters and call-ins, provides an outlet for their hopes and dreams and fears and tragedies.
It’s handled brilliantly, this interplay between Harry and his listeners, with his on-air tirades ranging from masturbation humor to painfully honest conversations with a gay classmate or about teen pregnancy or the school’s recent suicide victim. Along the way, Hard Harry develops a massive, school-wide following that he progressively incites to stop taking the school’s tyrannical bullshit and stand up for themselves. He’s aided by another social misfit, Nora (Samantha Mathis, in a wonderful supporting role), and the film also periodically provides snapshot glimpses into the lives of the other students. Of course, the school gets fed up with Harry and his effect on the kids, and over time they begin tightening the leash, which simply inflames the populace more. Eventually it spawns a full-blown investigation into tracking down Hard Harry and… well, let’s leave it there for now.
What separates Pump Up The Volume from the pack are three things: excellent acting, a candid, critical look at schools and kids and parents, and the music. The music is actually what brings us here today. Pump Up The Volume features what is to this day one of my top-five favorite soundtracks. It’s an amazing assembly of punk rock, hip hop, soul, you name it. Even better, it’s not just taken from the Billboard charts or from MTV — most of the bands heard in the film were, and in some cases still are, pretty obscure. By using these songs, the director, Allan Moyle (Empire Records) really gave the film a greater sense of authenticity. In 1990, I was a sophomore in high school, and when I discovered this soundtrack, a new world opened up for me. What makes it even more intriguing is that for general scenes, the films solid score by Cliff Martinez does the work. The individual songs by the then-contemporary artists are used as actual setpieces — that is to say, they are played by the people in the film — when kids turn on a radio, or during Harry’s broadcast. It’s a brilliant technique that’s been used before and since, because it allows the song to become a part of the scene, and to allow the actors to interact with not just each other, but with the song itself. Finally, the songs are clearly very carefully chosen, because both lyrically and musically, they usually fit the scene perfectly.
Which is why I’m going to let the music tell the rest of the story.
“Everybody knows the dice are loaded / everybody rolls with their fingers crossed”
The seminal song in the film is “Everybody Knows,” originally written and performed by Leonard Cohen. It’s Harry’s theme song — he plays it at the beginning of each broadcast. Featuring an ominous groove in the background and Cohen’s trademark deep voice dripping with cynicism, it’s quintessential Hard Harry. Oddly, it’s not on the film’s soundtrack — instead they opted to use the Concrete Blonde cover, which is also used in the film, when Mark is on the run and broadcasting from on the move. Both versions are excellent, but I’ll let you pick which you prefer.
“Tonight, I wanna make this real clear, dear / I’ve no time to whisper in your ear / No time to remove our fears / I just wanna get near”
Ice-T is perhaps one of the most incongruous choices, but in a way, it’s way more anti-establishment than any punk rock song. “L.G.B.N.A.F” (Let’s Get Butt Naked And Fuck) was one of those tracks that gave the P.M.R.C. foaming fits of apoplexy. Here, it’s tossed into a shitty tape deck before a class starts, catching the ire of the hard-assed teacher. In white suburban high school (and I should know — I went to the whitest, suburbanest high school in America. Needless to say, I loved this song), it’s the musical equivalent of defecating in the halls . Another track not included on the soundtrack, it perfectly shows what the proper technique is for pissing off the powers-that-be, who of course fall for the trap instantly.
“I thought this country was based upon freedom of speech / Freedom of press, freedom of your own religion / To make your own decision, now that’s baloney / Cause if I gotta play by your rules, I’m bein’ phony / Yo, I got to cater to this person or that person / I got to rhyme for the white or the black person?”
Then there’s the other way to rebel — by taking a real stand and raising your fist. “Freedom of Speech” is by the little-known hip hop act Above The Law. It’s a slick, funky track that speaks to the very themes that Harry espouses. Another piece of quiet rebellion by the kids, it’s played in a boombox during their breaks, demonstrating that their escalating rebellion is becoming clearer and more focused.
Obviously the Ice-T track is NSFW.
“If it be your will / That I speak no more / And my voice be still / As it was before.”
Leonard Cohen really got the shaft on the soundtrack. This track — a somber, gutpunch of a song that’s used to gently illustrate the students pain after one of their own, even a geeky nerd misfit, takes his own life — didn’t make the soundtrack either. But rarely does a song so perfectly capture the mood. I’m telling you, if loneliness, sadness and the hurts of the human heart are your thing, then Leonard Cohen demands your attention.
“Let me be who I am / And let me kick out the jams”
Let’s change the pace, shall we? The next track plays when Hard Harry finally says fuck it, and the tide starts to turn. It’s him losing his shit, and it’s accompanied by a montage of his fellow HHHH students tearing their lives and their homes apart in solidarity and in a final, unbridled explosion of emotion. And once again, it’s the perfect choice. “Kick Out The Jams,” written by the MC5, a band so wild and politically charged that they once incited a riot. However, this version is performed by a combination that still makes me swoon — Henry Rollins, with the astounding reggae/punk/hardcore band Bad Brains (to this day, one of my all-time favorite bands) as his backers. It’s a piece of revolutionary glory, one that will make you want to smash your monitor with a chair and run out of the office screaming towards freedom. Listen for Dr. Know’s ridiculous guitar solo at around the 1:45 mark.
“You’ll think I’m dead / But I sail away / On a wave of mutilation”
Perhaps my favorite song comes after one of my favorite moments. I briefly mentioned Harry’s conversation with a lonely, disaffected and frustrated gay classmate before. It’s a short, but effective scene that shows how kids can sometimes force themselves to be a little bit tougher — hell, it’s either that or we end up with what led to “If I It Be Your Will.” Harry can’t offer the kid help, or tell him how to cope with things; hell, he can barely deal with his own problems. Instead, all he can offer is some solidarity and sympathy. The scene closes out with him playing The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation (U.K. Surf Mix).” It’s already a beautiful song, but this mix, a stripped down, slowed down, gauzy, ethereal take on it, will take your breath away. Despite its lazy pace, it still manages to grab you at the crescendo.
“Hey now I see / It’s always been me / I thought I was deaf / In my misery”
One of the most interesting scenes is when Mark is finally confronted by Nora in his home. It perfectly illustrates the bizarre dichotomy that his life is — as Harry, he’s brash, confident and clever. As Mark, he’s completely useless, and even though she knows they’re the same person, he still can’t talk to her face to face. Instead, he turns to the radio, back to her, to try to express how he feels. The director made some interesting choices when portraying this schism between his personalities — is a nebbish, nerdily dressed, glasses wearing wallflower. With Harry, everything is different — his style of dress (plus he doesn’t wear glasses in Harry-mode), his voice (through a vocoder), his posture, even his hair. Anyway, it all leads up to him and Nora finally having their moment, as “Why Can’t I Fall In Love,” Ivan Neville’s gorgeous, organ-filled ode to romantic despair cries out in the background. Listen to it, and imagine those torturous moments of heartwrenching, painful, raw emotion and love in your life.
“Accused and convicted / For nothing I suffer your fear”
A few weeks ago, Felicia and I lamented the wretchedness of Chris Cornell’s newest album. Songs like this make that wound sting even more. “Heretic” is super early Soundgarden, before SuperUnknown, before Badmotorfinger — hell, before even Louder Than Love or Ultramega OK. It’s a near-terrifying song written by former bassist Hiro Yamamoto, with Cornell being as screamy as he can possibly be. It’s appropriate then, that “Heretic” plays as kids have gathered in a local park (“where the reception is the coolest”), in anticipation of Harry’s next broadcast, even though everybody knows (natch) that the authorities are now hot on his trail. The group gets loud and rowdy and they begin to splinter off into groups of feral little wildlings, going so far as to burn their school principal in effigy, all as Cornell wails furiously through their car stereos. Warms my heart, it does.
“Stand / And they will try to make you crawl / And they know what you said didn’t make sense at all”
Finally, the film ends. It’s a great ending, not too schmaltzy, definitely not happy, but also not sad. Liquid Jesus, a band I confess I know absolutely nothing about, plays the spirit-lifting “Stand” as the credits roll. It’s a strong exit, and interestingly, the only song in the credits — they are perfectly synced to the song. It’s a solid ending to a solid film.
There’s a lot I left out, about both the film and the music, but that’s for you to explore further. There’s a number of smaller, skit-like songs (my favorite being “Weinershnitzel” by The Descendents), and the truly epic Sonic Youth piece, “Titanium Expose,” along with the Cowboy Junkies, Peter Murphy, and others. Similarly, there are innumerable little moments in the film that stand out. Christian Slater has had a career that can be described as inconsistent at best, but Pump Up The Volume may well feature his best performance (yes, better than Heathers. Maybe even better than True Romance. Maybe). It’s a perfect little slice of what life was like in 1991, and a serious, intelligent and interesting take on the lives and dramas of the American adolescent.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.