We see a room full of artifacts belonging to a teenager. A teenager from the early 90s. There’s a red switch that gets turned on, and this causes a buzzing sound to be heard. The buzzing sound of a radio going live. A pirate radio.
That’s one of the first scenes from the film Pump up the Volume.
About three decades ago I saw a poster with Christian Slater looking cool in front of a microphone. It had all these words written all over the poster with a “public bathroom poetry” kind of font. But these words sounded like Cheddar sitting over cheese bread that already had some cream cheese spread all over. Like something a middle aged Hollywood exec in a suit would qualify as I’m-a-rebel™ quotes. As if this would summarize what Gen X was all about. That made me recoil and make a face, that face we humans make when we smell something undesirable. “Nope, I ain’t watching that,” was my this-is-beneath-me reaction.
About a year or two later, a couple of friends of mine started bringing up this movie, telling me that it was a pretty good one and that I should watch it, that it was definitely down my alley. I disagreed and proceeded to get a second opinion from other friends whom I trusted as film connoisseurs. Film connoisseurs like yours truly, of course. Snobbery and narcissism was the name of the game for me back then. I knew they would confirm what I suspected: that the movie was cheesy, tropie and written by someone who had no clue what young people where all about. And of course, they all just verified what my other friends said, that the movie was actually good.
“Damn it. Now I have to watch it,” I thought.
So I did.
And wow, did I like that movie. I liked it so much that I have to rewatch it every five years or so, just to not forget what being young felt like. And still to this day it riles up my rebellious youngster side. Every single time.
The story is about this teen who has just moved to Arizona and is not integrating well into his new school. He’s an introvert. To find his voice he becomes the DJ of a pirate radio that he runs from his parents basement. As promised by the poster, the radio is pretty rebellious. But also pretty inappropriate for the 90s. This starts making waves with the teens in the local town, and the power structures at the school and community start to get shaken.
Recently I bought the BluRay version to rewatch it with my daughter. To me this movie is still a gem. The soundtrack is pretty high up on the scale, if you like 90s music. It’s a very interesting mix: Leonard Coen, The Pixies, Red Hot Chilly Peppers, Cowboy Junkies, Henry Rollins, Soundgarden and much more. Unfortunately. there’s no official Soundtrack on streaming services, but here’s a link to a playlist I’ve made with all the songs on Apple Music (https://music.apple.com/ca/playlist/pump-up-the-volume-soundtrack/pl.u-NpXmm27TmvbZ7Z). Some people have created playlists for other services.
But back to the film, an actress I would like to highlight is Samantha Mathis. She does an extraordinary job in this movie. Her character, as the girl who starts falling in love with the mysterious pirate radio guy is well written and an integral part of the movie. To the point where I question the fact that she’s not on the official movie poster. This is probably due to the fact that she wasn’t a big name back then, and the movie industry is all about how many people can an actor get into the theatre. How many tickets sold, eyeballs watched, etc… But it has to be said that the movie is more about them than it is just about Mark, the character played by Christian Slater.
Some other things I’ve quite enjoyed on this last watch was the Fashion. Pure and happy early 90s fashion. Round rim black glasses, indie rock kind of clothing, black army like boots. Made me feel all warm inside. It was pure nostalgia for me, but inspiration and curiosity for my daughter.
It’s been more than 30 years since this movie was released, and it is a truly inspiring movie for me still. “Steel the air!” yells Christian Slater over the radio. Those words sounds corny at first, but as the plot unfolds they have this deeper meaning about rebellion to authority. About fighting oppression. About being able to be heard and put ideas contrary to the norm. The standard that is put in place by the ones who wield power. And these people who wield power always want to silence dissenting messages. Because it is the message that controls the minds and shapes the future.
Pump up the Volume is about questioning the status quo, about bringing in some necessary changes and moving forward. About making the ones who are silenced and who don’t have a chance to be heard, to be heard.
And it is by contradicting that last thought, censoring myself, that I end this article. This would be because I’m approaching that dangerous point where I might disclose too much information and spoil the movie for those who haven’t watched it yet. So I will leave you here with this last important message. Always, but absolutely always:
“Eat your cereal with a fork and do your homework in the dark.”