Pump Up the Volume
directed by Allen Moyle
at the Brattle Theatre
Teenage frustrations, out-of-touch ex-hippie parents, suicide, homosexuality, a makeshift radio program and of course, sex--put these together and you have every teenybopper's dream of a cool movie. I mean, it's just so, like, deep, man. These and many other stereotypical or far-fetched sentiments appear in Allan Moyle's film, "Pump Up the Volume."
Christian Slater plays Mark Hunter, a disgruntled New York kid who finds himself stuck in the Arizona desert going to an enormous suburban high school where his father is the District Overseer. With all-weather lockers outside and students who seem to always be "hangin' loose," the school's placid environment is infiltrated by a mysterious independent radio programmer. Mark, at exactly ten o'clock every evening, cranks up his short-wave radio system and plays Happy Harry Hard-On to the many teenage listeners of his school (which very coincidentally match the initials HHH of the high school, Hubert H. Humphrey). Mark gives advice for the lost teenagers who "come out" on the air. These include, as you may have guessed, the repressed, studious suicidal Malcolm; the perfect, beautiful and smart Page; and most of all, the sexually explicit "Eat-me, Beat-me Lady," Nora, played enticingly by Samantha Mathis.
The plot, although original in its premise of the underground radio show as an outlet for teenage angst, is not supported by the rest of the movie. The writing, by the movie's director, Allan Moyle, is cliched at best. As the movie unfolds, the teenage heroes fight the system; Nora and Mark hit it off and take on the school administration. What was thought to be a pastoral place of learning and enrichment in the hills (which are actually outside of Los Angeles, as proven by the shot of the LA Aqueduct) turns out to be full of troubled kids. Happy Harry's hotline for the teenage blues becomes controversial when he criticizes the school board's expulsion of a pregnant student, and when one of his callers commits suicide. When bootleg copies of the show played during breaks at the school, the administration reacts by kicking out the "troublemakers."
Mark's parents, played by Mimi Kennedy and Scott Paulin, try to get through to their "troubled" son with the overbearing "I remember when I was your age" speeches. Paulin has such lines as, "what a lech he is," meaning Mark after he is found with Nora. Kennedy's character responds, "well he must have learned it from his father" (immediate parental embrace and kissing follow). Such an inane portrayal of adults fits with the 14-year-old audience the writer was aiming for.
The only saving grace (although not enough to carry the movie) is Slater's acting. Of course, he acts like his typical Jack Nicholson-esque self, but his evangelical speeches to his peers and his sincerity and sagacity keep the movie from becoming a complete self-parody. Slater delivers his lines with the mixture of childlike sincerity and budding adult wisdom that is required of this most intelligent teen. Mathis, on the other hand, acts like a cross between Molly Ringwald and Wynona Ryder (believe me, two wrongs never make a right). Her precocious writing ability, combined with her overzealous real-life libido and change-the-world enthusiasm, make her more annoying than inspirational. She and Slater have an interesting "coming of age" scene, but if you are looking for hot sultry sex, better rent "9 1/2 Weeks."
To take the already belabored, wobbling plot even closer to its fall, the writer forces the radio show (which could have been an insightful vehicle for teenage problems) into a fight for free speech. By the end of the movie the Federal Communications Commission has been sent in to stop the show. As if painting the school's administrators as automatons enforcing social pressure on teenagers is not enough, the writer brings in the Feds to rein-force the "Sixteen Candles' meets 1984" theme of the film.
The only other reason to see the film, besides Slater's acting, is, sadly enough, the soundtrack. The reason for the movie's title (and the reason you stay awake during the dialogue) is the mixture of music like the mellow Leonard Cohen, the Cowboy Junkies with Sound Garden and other grunge bands. The music, original and unusual in choice, keeps the movie at least sonically interesting. Yes, the director has inserted the (aren't we surprised?) love lyrics of "I want you, etc." during the hook-up scene but other than that, it is quality music.
For a blast back to high school and the (can we forget) problems that period of time lent us, see "Pump Up the Volume." It's guaranteed to be a good laugh, if at its own expense.