The film stars Christian Slater in what in my opinion is one of his better roles. He is transplanted from New York to milk toast Arizona because his father gets a promotion. Frankly he is miserable, lonely and his only out to vent and express his frustrations with his new surroundings is to start an FM pirate radio station that broadcasts from the basement of his parents’ house. Mark (Slater) is a loner, an outsider, whose only outlet for his teenage angst and aggression is his unauthorized radio station. His pirate station’s theme song is “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen and there are glimpses of cassettes by such alternative musicians as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Camper Van Beethoven, Primal Scream, Soundgarden, Ice-T, Bad Brains, Concrete Blonde, Henry Rollins, and The Pixies.
By day, Mark is seen as a loner, hardly talking to anyone around him, not even looking people in the eye; by night, he expresses his outsider views about what is wrong with American society. And more importantly what is going on at his school. When he speaks his mind about what is going on at his school and in the community, more and more of his fellow students tune in to hear his show.
Nobody knows the true identity of “Hard Harry” or “Happy Harry Hard-on,” as Mark refers to himself, until Nora Diniro (Mathis), a fellow student, tracks him down and confronts him the day after a student named Malcolm commits suicide after Harry attempts to reason with him. The radio show becomes increasingly popular and influential after Harry confronts the suicide head-on, exhorting his listeners to do something about their problems instead of surrendering to them through suicide—at the crescendo of his yelled speech an overachieving student Paige Woodward (who has been a constant listener) jams her various medals and accolades into a microwave and turns it on. She then sits, watching the awards cook until the microwave explodes, injuring her. While this is happening, other students act out in cathartic release.
Eventually, the radio show causes so much trouble in the community that the FCC is called in to investigate. During the fracas, it is revealed that the school’s principal (Annie Ross) has been expelling “problem students,” namely, students with below-average SAT scores, in an effort to boost the district’s test scores while still keeping their names on the rolls (a criminal offense) in order to keep the government money.
Mark’s show becomes so popular that despite FCC trackers he rigs up his mom’s jeep to delay their ability to track him down. As the police close in on him his voice disguiser breaks and on the verge of being caught, Mark tells the students that the world belongs to them and that they should make their own future. The police step in and arrest Mark and Nora. As they are taken away, Mark reminds the students to “talk hard.” As the film ends, the voices of other students (and even one of the teachers) speak as intros for their own independent stations, which can be heard broadcasting across the country.
In my opinion working within the confines of the teen-age genre film, Pump Up the Volume succeeds in sounding a surprising number of honest, heartfelt notes. The movie is also entertaining to adults probably because it takes them back to their days of pseudo rebellion. Watch it, Slater matures significantly from Heathers to Pump Up The Volume. Pump Up the Volume is the best of the “fuck the establishment if they can’t take a joke” genre.