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Lynchpin Performances: Christian Slater in “Pump Up the Volume”

November 30, 2010

Think of a teen film that breaks the mold and doesn’t seem to be a teen film at all. If you’re a real movie aficionado, the film that might come to mind is 1989’s “Heathers,” which was a very different spin on the overly used “High School Clique” experience.

“Heathers” paired Winona Ryder with Christian Slater who did his second best Jack Nicholson Jr., (his first was in “True Romance”) and followed a group of decidedly kinky high school women who apparently were S/M Dominatrices in-training as they were all dealing with getting through the labyrinth of lockers, love, lunchrooms and loony that was high school. Very smart, really edgy, totally unique and completely attention grabbing, Ryder and Slater (as well as supporting actress Shannen Doherty) all got noticed after they appeared in that film.

Where Ryder went on to decidedly different material after her appearance in “Heathers,” eventually to receive two Academy Award nominations, and Doherty headed to her Aaron Spelling rendezvous in Beverly Hills, Slater lingered in Silver Screen High School for another surprisingly interesting film in 1990 called “Pump Up the Volume.”

Four points worked against this film in a way that really hurt it. The first was “Heathers.” Slater in yet another teen angst story so quickly after the success of the previous one definitely didn’t do any favors for “Pump.”  And yet, it was Slater’s performance that held the entire story together!  Here, Slater’s character, an East Coast city kid fish-out-of-water, is stranded in an Arizona suburb where his scholastic administrator father was transferred. A short wave radio was supposed to keep him in touch with his former classmates, but he wound up finding a frequency on his local FM band and began illegally casting a radio show all about everything he hated in his life, most especially his high school and the people running it.

Slater’s tour-de-force performance rivals Eric Bogosian and is more pleasant on the ear in most ways, and has a lot of humor and some important universal truths in it. One of the brilliant lines his character utters: “All the great themes have been used up and turned into theme parks.”

The second problem was the co-star. Samantha Mathis, an up and coming actress at the time, was cast as a fellow malcontent, a poet who wrote to the anonymous DJ with her decidedly “R” rated verses. Mathis with her bottle brunette hair and pale skin wound up looking a lot like Winona, making the “Heathers” comparisons that much stronger, which also didn’t help matters. But Hey! I might have listed this film under the “Movies Made So The Stars Can Do It” umbrella, as Mathis and Slater had a fling coming out of this picture (and even worked together as voices for “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” and later on the action thriller “Broken Arrow”)!

Third, the writer/director of “Pump,” Allan Moyle, touched on some previous work, as the story of this film paralleled a work of his from ten years before: “Times Square,” which starred Tim Curry as a DJ and Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as punk rockers looking to become recording stars. I know that doesn’t sound very much like the plot of this film, but there are definite themes of youth and rebellion and adult failure and finding your way in the world that mirror these two plots.

And finally the name of the film was an issue. “Pump Up the Volume” was the title of a popular dance song by M.A.R.R. S. released in 1987, however, the song was not used nor even referenced in the film, (this despite the fact that the soundtrack ran the gamut of music, from Leonard Cohen to the Beastie Boys to Ice T) and people often thought that when the film was mentioned, the song was the topic of discussion, a detriment to the P.R. for the movie while it was in theaters.

There are a lot of issues with the storyline, as Slater’s jaded jock is exposing problems that are happening within the administration of his school and that process is often disjointed and preachy. But the reason this film is worth revisiting now is that right in the midst of it all, almost as a forgotten moment, is a critical topic.

Slater’s character, “Hard Harry,” fielded phone calls from his listeners and handed out advice as part of his broadcast. One such call was from a person who wrote him saying he planned to commit suicide, and the reason he stated was “I’m all alone.” The other was a young man who openly stated he was gay and dealing with what was clearly a bullying situation. Combined, these two callers tell a tale that is tragically timely.

If in 1990 we were examining issues such as this in what was basically a mainstream film, how did we get to 2010 with no proper response?  The sad prophecy included in the narrative here makes this film worth re-examining, and really should hold our society up to the same scrutiny Hard Harry was using with his school system at the time.

Slater is very compelling in his performance here. It’s never overdone, and considering most of the scenes where he has his most dramatic moments are when he’s alone in his parents’ basement  with just his microphone, cigarettes, Black Jack gum and other refinements, and no other actors to react or emote with, that’s a pretty great performance. It does skew beyond High School, as even the most seasoned East Coast kid wouldn’t be quite as world-weary as this one, and yet it works very well, and the message the film has about free speech is also a crucial one.

The conclusion “Pump” reaches has seemingly come true, though not on the radio, as the movie might have hoped, but right here where you’re reading this. The web has become the common ground for people to take their stories, their problems, their complaints and their feelings and air them for the whole world to see, in word, in sound, in picture, both still and video, and in action. To paraphrase the film’s catchphrases, twenty years later:

“Steal the net.” “Post hard.”

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2010 7:24 pm

    This movie was a pivotal point in my life it started my on again of again romance with Miss Mathis(in my own puberty driven mind) and my love for Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi. Watching it now brings back my rebellious teenage feelings. I am looking for an establishment to fight against.

  2. hsofia permalink
    November 30, 2010 7:25 pm

    Wow, I had forgotten all about this movie, but I do remember liking it. I was 14 or 15 then. The clip still holds up, I’m sure (high waisted jean pants notwithstanding).

  3. November 30, 2010 10:20 pm

    Fun Poplife fact: This movie was filmed at my High School my freshman year! I can still pick out buddies as they walk across the quad in certain scenes.

    I should watch it again… It had a great soundtrack (if my foggy ol’ timer mind is remembering correctly) Sonic Youth,Peter Murphy, Leonard Cohen, Was Not Was, Richard Hell, the Pixies!!!!!

  4. November 30, 2010 10:58 pm

    This film — and performance — is why I had a crush on Christian Slater for an unreasonable length of time. Thank you for a writeup of this movie, reminding me of the good parts!

  5. November 30, 2010 11:05 pm

    @raymond I still watch everything with Slater in it. So if your unreasonable length of time is still going I certainly wouldn’t judge you poorly for it.

  6. November 30, 2010 11:22 pm

    @1sttimeoffender: it’s nice to not be alone. I really wanted My Own Worst Enemy to be his big comeback!

  7. December 1, 2010 12:12 am

    Perhaps the long awaited sequel to Kuffs is right around the corner

  8. December 1, 2010 1:06 am

    @1sttimeoffender I’m writing about Samantha Mathis a lot, aren’t I? At least I don’t think you mind! I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that this film is two decades old!

  9. December 1, 2010 1:10 am

    @hsofia Though the need to create a pirate radio station isn’t needed to reach everybody in your high school anymore, there are some points that make the story a bit more timeless than you would expect, and that’s the communication elements… so that’s definitely transcends the “of the era” qualities the film must have.

  10. December 1, 2010 1:13 am

    @p0plife a mutual friend pointed out her scene to me: she was walking along and carrying a screwdriver as Ellen Greene ran over to say good bye to Slater! The soundtrack was remarkable… the soundtrack album, not so much, which was another negative point about the film. I mean, how could they have not gotten “Everybody Knows” by Cohen on the disc? It was the character’s theme song!

  11. December 1, 2010 1:17 am

    @raymondj I wonder how everything would have gone if this film came out first and then “Heathers” got released after it? To his credit, though, I still think Slater has his best work ahead of him!

  12. December 1, 2010 4:39 am

    I have still never seen this movie. I cannot stand Christian Slater. Everyone I know has seen it and it has some resonance for them. Though for me it scans as Footloose on the radio. Also, try as I might, I cannot stand Samantha Mathis’ film presence – save Jack & Sarah. Still, liked reading about the film and I agree with your point about Heathers. It’s probably the initial reason why I wasn’t particularly interested in Pump upon its release. Honestly, I didn’t even like Slater in Heathers, though I loved the movie a lot. I tend to shun film or at least groan whenever his name appears in the credits. It’s always a bit of a let down.

  13. December 1, 2010 9:32 am

    I still think Slater has his best work ahead of him!

    ah, the damning of faint praise.

  14. December 1, 2010 10:50 am

    @Raymondj – hahah.

  15. December 1, 2010 11:32 am

    @Snarky But seriously… what do you REALLY think about Slater?

  16. December 1, 2010 11:56 am

    He’s like Travolta to me. I try really hard to tolerate their appearance in a project because they often are cast in great films, but find it really difficult to do so. I feel that way about Kurt Russell too.

  17. evmaroon permalink
    December 1, 2010 1:01 pm

    I didn’t care for this movie when I saw it, but I was smack dab in the middle of the target audience for Heathers. And then she had to go slather dirt on her name with her five finger fail. Can anyone tell me why people let Robert Downey, Jr., Paris HIlton, and that awful Roman Polansky get second chances but not Winona Ryder? Some days it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Meanwhile, I thought Slater did a decent job in The West Wing. But I always find his voice unnecessarily nasal and annoying.

  18. December 1, 2010 1:03 pm

    Winona has always had a surprising number of haters, probably because she made acting seem effortless and she always looks about 15.

  19. lanehat permalink
    December 1, 2010 2:03 pm

    “Rise up in the cafeteria and stab them with your plastic knives!”

    I actually didn’t know there were many people other than me who liked this movie so much. Bonus points that it introduced me to Leonard Cohen.

  20. hsofia permalink
    December 1, 2010 5:53 pm

    Christian Slater will always be the one who introduced me to skateboarding. I’m from Queens; I had never seen or heard of skateboarding before Gleaming the Cube. I couldn’t care less about him now, but back then I had a crush on him. Right around the same time, he was in Young Guns II and Mobsters, which I’m sure the critics didn’t like – but all was right in the world for this then-13 year old!

  21. December 3, 2010 1:22 am

    @evmaroon Winona seems to be on a bit of a comeback… her appearance in “Star Trek” was a positive step; it looks like something similar may happen with “Black Swan,” this season, and her return to the Tim Burton repertory in “Frankenweenie” is forthcoming so don’t count Ms. Horowitz out entirely!

  22. December 3, 2010 1:24 am

    @lanehat I wonder if leaving “Everybody Knows” off of the soundtrack recording of the film made people seek out the Leonard Cohen albums and purchase them? If that were the case, then that’s a great justification for not having it on there! (They didn’t even mention Cohen’s name throughout the film!) Thanks for reading and commenting!

  23. December 3, 2010 1:29 am

    @hsofia Slater was certainly heartthrob material, so I understood, at least for some! I do enjoy this performance of his in a lot of ways, just because it was like a regular guy superhero: a really confused and shy teen by day, and this brilliant instigator by night. And that’s the kind of superhero that really *could* exist, which I think is why I was drawn to the concept so much.

  24. December 3, 2010 1:39 am

    I did look up Leonard Cohen because he wasn’t on the soundtrack. I remember my mom listening to him as a kid (at least I remember her listening to Suzanne)

  25. January 13, 2011 3:26 pm

    I loved this movie. It really breaks the mold and the dialogue and soundtrack are amazing. I sought out Allan Moyle’s followup movie, Empire Records, becuase of this, but Empire seemed flat and trite.

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