Christian Slater brought something special to Pump Up the Volume and that’s an electrifying performance. Say what you will about some of his abysmal movie choices in the 90s and his penchant for using a Jack Nicholson-type drawl, he’s got some acting chops and he put them on fine display as Mark Hunter aka Hard Harry in the 1990 statement film about teenage angst, conformity, rebellion and the shock value that music and commentary can have on disaffected, apathetic youth.
Mark Hunter is a quiet, introverted high school student in suburban Arizona. He’s an unhappy kid who finds himself in a nowhere place after his parents move to a small community from Manhattan. During the day, he keeps to himself. He walks with his head down and his hands shoved in his pockets. At night, he retreats downstairs to the basement where he uses a homemade radio console to pirate a radio station and takes to the airwaves as the hip, outrageous, frank and funny disc jockey and social commentator Hard Harry. His alter ego quickly attracts the following of the local teenagers at his high school. The most captivating scenes in the film are of Hard Harry speaking into the mic from his hideout in the basement about everything from his father, to the school system, to sex, drugs, teen suicide, music, masturbation and America. He riffs about so many things and the riffing scenes are intercut brilliantly with shots of his listeners. They all listen raptly and smile, laugh, nod, talk back to him and some are even moved to action.
In the scene stealer, Harry broaches the topic of teen suicide after a depressed kid who called into his show for advice commits suicide. He talks about how being a teenager is sometimes less fun than being dead and how suicide is less complicated than dealing with all of life’s crap if you really think about it. Then he flips the topic on its head and talks about the downside of taking your own life; how the pain we feel, compared to everything else around us, is the only thing that’s truly real and how doing something crazy makes more sense than suicide. One listener – a preppy, popular, seemingly perfect teenage girl gathers up her plaques, trophies, ribbons, and pearls and nukes everything in the microwave.
Christian Slater is the real scene stealer here. He switches personas so believably and effectively throughout the film. He’s intensely animated, passionately fanatical and amazingly frank and crude as Hard Harry and sweet, sensitive and sad as Mark Hunter. Pump Up the Volume succeeds thanks to Slater who roars into the microphone with all of the passion he can muster while making big statements set to some really great music.