The Daily Stream: Before Podcasts, There Was Pump Up The Volume

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Pump Up the Volume"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: It's the late 1980s/early 1990s. Teenage loner Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) moves from the east coast to a quiet suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, and he ends up using the short-wave radio he bought to talk to friends back home to create his own pirate radio station. He creates an alter-ego and uses the name "Happy Harry Hard-on," using a voice modulator to hide his true identity. He transmits a live show every night, and soon all of the students at his high school are huge fans. They send him anonymous letters to a P.O. Box and he reads them on air, often giving advice to the various forlorn teens. If they include a phone number, he calls them up to chat, offering the only place for their voices to really be heard. "Harry" encourages the teens to stand up for themselves, to love themselves, and to stop trying to fit into whatever mold the world wants them to squeeze into. He becomes an inspiration to the teenagers, who begin rebelling against the authoritarian principal Creswood (Annie Ross), who, along with other staff members, expelled a student for being pregnant instead of offering her help. As the pirate station starts causing problems for the suburb's adults, they call in the FCC and try to get the station shut down. What follows is an underground, punk-rock coming-of-age story for the ages, with a sweet love story subplot and one of the best soundtracks in cinema history. 

Why It's Essential Viewing

These days, anyone with an opinion can voice it on Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, or their podcast, but in 1990, when "Pump Up the Volume" came out, teenagers didn't really have many ways to express themselves — especially in a way that wasn't under adult scrutiny. By writing to Harry, they're finally given someone to talk to who won't judge them, and they're given the catharsis of their story being told without revealing their identity. The teens are complex characters despite initially seeming like stereotypes: one of the characters who gets the best arc is an overachiever who blows up her medals in her parents' microwave. Harry consoles and reassures a closeted young gay man who experiences a hateful prank, convinces his fellow teens to stand up against unfair school policies, and tries to save another teen from death by suicide. Unfortunately, he fails at this last task and discovers as much when the student's death is announced at school the next day. It's almost enough to make him give up his radio show completely, but his budding romance with another student who sends him secret letters under a pseudonym of her own changes everything. 

"Pump Up the Volume" was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Allan Moyle, best known for his coming-of-age music store dramedy "Empire Records." Slater is absolute perfection here, giving Mark an earnestness and a sleaze to his alter-ego that feels genuine. He's not using the weird Jack Nicholson-lite dialect he took on in "Heathers," but instead just speaks and acts like a teen who's maybe just a tiny bit wise beyond his years. 

The whole cast is great, including Samantha Mathis ("Billions"), Mimi Kennedy ("Mom"), Ahmet Zappa ("Anarchy TV"), Ellen Green ("Little Shop of Horrors") and a very young Seth Green ("Robot Chicken"). The dialogue is vulgar and occasionally a little disgusting, but that's all a part of Mark's riffs on shock-jock humor. He'll go from pretending to masturbate and clapping his hands together to having a heart-to-heart with a downtrodden teen in a matter of moments, because there's heart underneath an outward appreciation of filth. In a way, "Pump Up the Volume" reminds me of the work of John Waters, though significantly more restrained. Much like Waters' work, the film follows a bunch of misfits that rail against the system, and we're always meant to root for the misfits. The movie is a heartfelt look into what it's like to feel unseen and unheard and refuses to gloss over the tougher parts of adolescence. 

One thing that cannot be understated is the quality of the soundtrack. With a name like "Pump Up the Volume," you'd expect a soundtrack full of bangers, and you'd be spot-on. The pirate radio show's theme song is Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," for starters, and the soundtrack (and film) include songs by Pixies, Soundgarden, Descendents, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, and more. It's an alt-rock time-warp featuring some of the best of the turn of the decade, and it's almost impossible to walk away from this flick without a smile on your face.