And like that, I was hooked. In the very first line, a movie had caught my attention and would not let go for the next 100 minutes. All the angst of a teenager who somehow felt that life in this blessed country of ours was severely off track began here and rampaged all through Pump Up the Volume. It was like Paul Simon's "American Tune," only more graphic, more punk, and updated for the life of the alienated 1990s teenager, rather than the merely discontented 1970s young adult. Oh yeah, and it was a full film instead of a pretty four minute-long folk song. Never mind that it was a suburbanite's view of alienation, rebellion, and just generally acting out. I was a suburbanite. And a fairly alienated, rebellious, and disturbed one, as they come. So it hit me like a sucker punch to the gut, as if someone had read my mind and transferred its contents, goo and all, to celluloid.
It's hard to say exactly where my adoration should start. Mark Hunter/Hard Harry (a very cute Christian Slater) was my alter ego, a high school kid hiding his literary talents by day behind painful shyness and by night behind voice distortion over his freeform makeshift radio station. He'd utter random, meaningless thoughts on the air like "Eat your cereal with a fork, and do your homework in the dark," but I lapped it up like honey because it sounded so gleefully subversive, and man, what if you did exactly those things? What would people think? How fun would it be to screw with their minds? It wasn't a stretch for me to go from there to considering super-gluing all the pots and pans to the kitchen ceiling, just to see how the parental units would respond. (For the record: I never did, but man, some days I wish I had. Would have explained a lot more of my impulses nowadays.)
But then Hard Harry would swing from the gleeful to the deathly serious (at least for young kids like me): "Sometimes being young is less fun than being dead." Yeah. Tell that to the kid who's dealing with potential rejection far beyond what his 15 years on this planet has prepared him for. Say that to a kid who often becomes morbidly depressed for reasons he really can't fathom. He'll be listening. And he'll still be listening when Hard Harry says, "We're all worried, we're all in pain...Being a teenager sucks, but surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there." It was lines like these that kept me going when really, nothing else would.
But it was the realm between the absurd and the serious where Pump Up the Volume really came together. Hard Harry was able to take the deepest depths of teenage angst and give it meaning, give it momentum, and give it a target. Soon after Hard Harry began his radio show, a fan of his wrote in threatening suicide, and after a disturbingly blunt phone conversation, he tragically followed up on his threat. Hard Harry showed appropriate remorse afterward, but then began to rally himself – and purely by proxy, his other fans – against the forces that brought one of them down. He rightly took aim at his suburban chockablock surroundings - physical and otherwise - that created artificial walls and separated people from the compassion that everyone needs. "We're all disturbed. And if we're not, why not? Doesn't this blend of blindness and blandness want to make you do something crazy? Then why not do something crazy?" After hearing this call to arms, I wanted to yell out, "Hallelujah!" Except he had already beaten me to it, about 30 minutes before that. That's how onto my game Hard Harry was.
Oh, and since we’re talking about teenage drama, we can’t ignore hormones. How uncomfortable did Hard Harry make moviegoers when he faked a sexual act – jacking off – on the air that billions of men engage in every day? It was that unabashedness – again, behind a smokescreen of voice distortion – that was so compelling to all teenagers. To the guys? Wow…that guy has balls to be able to just admit to doing something like that…but actually jack off? And on the air? Damn. I can only imagine what women thought. Honestly, I had (and still have) no idea. But perhaps more compelling was Hard Harry’s insecurity about opening himself up to sexual attraction with someone else, expressed so dramatically during his scenes with an utterly compelling Samantha Mathis. (I had a bit of a girlcrush on her for a bit, quite similar to the one I had on Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice.) Gay, straight, at that point, it didn’t matter…being supremely awkward and uncomfortable, yet aching to connect with someone on a profoundly profound level was universal.
Pump Up the Volume, to be honest, doesn’t have much of a plot, much like its brilliant kindred spirit Dazed and Confused. Okay, so Hard Harry starts his own renegade radio show, eventually gets in trouble with the feds, and is arrested. Saw that one coming from miles away. But just like good Greek drama (my God, am I actually comparing this to Greek drama?), the story is not in what happens, but how it happens. Everyone knew Oedipus was going to kill his father and marry his mother and gouge his eyes out; how would it transpire on stage, though? Similarly, we all know Hard Harry’s going to jail for his (supposed) crimes, but how much can he get away with before the plug is pulled? Obviously, if he’s raising the hackles of the FCC, he goes much further than giving a (very powerful) voice to teen disillusionment. Heck, even what he accomplishes (bringing the corrupt administration of his high school down) pales in comparison to the voice he gives to his alienated peers.
Incidentally, I never did get this soundtrack, which is a bummer. But I’ve heard the original versions of at least half the songs, including Sonic Youth’s searing “Titanium Exposé” and a supremely awesome surf guitar version the Pixies did of their own “Wave of Mutilation.” Definitely worth a listen. And even though Concrete Blonde will never cease being cool in this guy’s eyes, Leonard Cohen’s original version of “Everybody Knows” is simply unbeatable. Download it posthaste.