I can’t remember the last time I heard someone talk about the movie Pump Up the Volume. Has it been forgotten?, left to collect dust in some type of post-Reagan/ pre-Nevermind pop-culture purgatory. I’m not sure it could even be labeled a cult classic. The movie was one of my favorites growing up.
Pump Up the Volume centers around the life of Mark Hunter, played by Christian Slater. Mark is a shy, smart loner who has recently, due to his father’s superintend position, moved to Paradise Hills, Arizona . At night he broadcasts a pirate radio station under alias of Happy Harry Hard-On.
He uses his voice to provide a no-holds barred, uncensored societal commentary, with much of his angst directed at the school he attends, and rightly so.
The administrators and faculty there are truly on some rank bullshit. They are expelling kids deemed to be undesirables for such innocuous offenses as getting pregnant or low test scores.
Mark catches wind of this and exposes the school’s draconian bullshit live on the air. The plot thickens when another distraught loner calls the show and threatens to commit suicide. At first Mark is flippant towards him, but when he realizes the caller is serious, he tires to talk him out of it. By then, it’s too late. The caller’s mind is made up, and the kid kills himself later on that night.
The authorities and the school blame Mark, and the FCC and federal authorities are brought in to bust him.
I think a greater understanding of all movies, music, and art can be ascertained by understanding the social, cultural and political climate of the time in which they were made.
Pump Up the Volume dates back to 1990, an era in which 2 Live Crew were put on trial because of the content of an album, the FCC hit Howard Stern with hefty fines, and Andrew Dice Clay had feminists riled up over his vulgar nursery rhymes.
Issues of censorship and the question of how far can someone go with free-speech hung heavy in the air. Pump Up the Volume fired back with an answer.
Pump Up the Volume would not work today as a remake, due to the growth of technology and social media. Mark is broadcasting on a short-wave radio set his dad bought him to keep in touch with friends back East, but the reception wouldn’t reach that far.
Today, Mark could just stay in contact with his friends via Facebook. Or he could do a podcast and not have to worry about the FCC. Although technology has grown by leaps and bounds and culture has shifted, the movie’s message remains relevant, that being that free speech should remain free.
I can’t say this about a lot of movies but when I first saw Pump Up the Volume, I felt inspired , not to become a pirate radio DJ, but to find my voice, use it, and say what needs to be said, regardless of who is offended by it.