Slater plays a high school student with the late night alias Happy Harry Hard-On, a suburban radio pirate and small time local celeb in the region famed for his anarchic broadcasts that ‘don’t follow the rules’. Recorded tapes of these nightly sessions where he plays the tunes that he likes, waxes poetical about anything that he has a mind to and (constantly) feigns dramatic bouts of self-punishment have become tradeable currency and evidence of ‘cred’ among the school body, in which mild mannered Mark Hunter – the alter ego of Hard Harry – is a member.
Each night at the same time ‘Harry’ starts his show and steers it in any direction that he decides with a duration of his choosing, recurring themes include ‘how hard it is to be a teen’ and ‘everyone over the age of 20 is out of touch’. Wonder what Hard Harry thinks of that now 2o plus years later?
Harry’s irrational and ill-thought out principles of the ignorant and uninformed strike a chord with his listeners and peers, though this is tested when a ‘long time listener – first time suicider’ writes to express his loneliness and despair.
Then follows through when Harry reads his letter on air and doesn’t take it seriously.
And herein lies my problem with Pump up the Volume; while Mark Hunter’s AKA is indeed charismatic and a commanding presence, I just don’t get the disenfranchised youth angle. It seems everyone in the school is acne free, well dressed and presentable aside from a young leather jacket wearing punkish youth who is intended to represent the group.
It was only near the end of the film where a clumsily introduced sub-plot about the reality of how the school body came to be that I twigged that this was supposed to be an apathetic and troubled group. Maybe I’m just old but they seemed well adjusted and happy to me – and I might point out that they did too when I was a teen watching this for the first time…
As ‘everyone over 20’ uniformly labels Harry a menace and the net closes in the poor depressed students rally about this faceless crusader, leading to some frankly ridiculous moments where the all meet to listen at ‘the best reception point in the area’ to have spontaneous parties and events filmed with empathy and self-expression in the face of those bastard adults that just wanna spoil their natural high man!
I dare say if Hollywood hadn’t managed to get it’s tentacles into the casting agent’s office and allowed a few genuine Goths, emo-kids and honest to goodness ordinary looking teens into the mix it might have been more evident that here were some troubled teens in need of guidance. Alas this wasn’t to be, so Pump up the Volume remains a film that touches on some big issues for 80s teens (depression, suicide, teen pregnancy, homophobia) but fails to provide the backdrop to highlight the struggle this small town feels most effectively.
None of this can be the fault of Slater who embodies both meek fieldmouse side of Mark Hunter by day and the braggadocious and cocky Hard Harry by night. He is an electric presence and was deserving of the critical plaudits and anticipation for the future.
Unfortunately both he and the film haven’t aged so well in the two decades that have followed, but Pump up the Volume is a worthwhile title on his CV and a high water mark for both he and teen flicks.
Final Rating – 7 / 10. Will resonate more with teens of the 80s, but some of the themes dealt with here are timeless. This and Heathers remain Slater’s best.
P.S. It’s amusing to find that the two musical genres picked to represent youthful disobedience and rebellion are rap and punk, the two biggest selling genres in music right now.