Pump Up the Volume at 30: A Middle Finger to America’s Suburban Monotony

Pump Up the Volume never capitulates. In its opening scene, a law-breaking teenage radio DJ who goes by the moniker Hard Harry ( known for excessive masturbation during his illegal missives) wonders, “You ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?” The defiance of that rhetorical question imbues every moment of Allan Moyle’s 1990 film, from Christian Slater’s mutinous lead performance to a soundtrack stacked with the likes of Pixies, Bad Brains, Ice-T, and Concrete Blonde. Every one of Hard Harry’s broadcasts is a smirking middle finger to everyone and everything. His parents and their generation, all sell-outs. The tidy organization of manufactured suburbs, copies of copies. The expected path of college-career-house-kids-work-die, unimaginable to fathom at 17 years old. The combination of relentlessness and restlessness that Harry pours out of his heart every night has the vulnerability of an open wound, and 30 years later, Pump Up the Volume is still a fiery call to arms against a unique kind of American monotony. 

Every counterculture teen movie from the late 1980s to mid-1990s was laced with the sneering energy of Cary Elwes’s Westley telling Robin Wright’s Buttercup in 1987’s The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The pirate had a point, and subsequent movies like Heathers, Dead Poets Society, Pump Up the Volume, Empire Records (which Moyle also directed), and Hackers interrogated the blandness we were expected to accept as part of growing up. For a brief, glorious time, Christian Slater was that subgenre’s crown prince. As the Jack Nicholson-mimicking, James Dean-referencing J.D. in Heathers, Slater was a malevolent manifestation of adolescent id. As the shy, soft-spoken Mark Hunter by day and Leonard Cohen-blasting, truth-seeking DJ Hard Harry by night in Pump Up the Volume, Slater had the range (and still considers it is his favorite role). 

Slater bounced between those two extremes in subsequent films—in Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino’s cult hit True Romance; alongside heavy hitters like Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman, and Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; when stepping into River Phoenix’s shoes in Interview with the Vampire—and decades later, went fully self-referential as the titular Mr. Robot. So much of Slater’s work alongside Rami Malek on Sam Esmail’s show feels like a wink back at the bold characters played by his younger self, and the USA Network series introduced him to a new audience. It’s a tragedy that most of them might never see Pump Up the Volume, impossible to find on any streaming service (that deep soundtrack is now its curse) and out of print on DVD in the U.S. Hard Harry’s criticisms, written then in the raunchy, disaffected voice of Generation X, seem as relevant now as they did then. Some things—like the all-consuming feelings of loss and abandonment, and the desperate desire to claw out from under their weight—transcend time. 

Hard Harry’s broadcasts (always at 10 p.m., but not always every night) capture the attention and imagination of the population of Hubert H. Humphrey High School, in a milquetoast suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. The teens call each other when his shows start, both delighted by and aghast at what they’re hearing; they drive to the high school’s football field, where the signal is the clearest, and cluster their cars together. With a mixture of titillating vulgarity (“Hard Harry” is short for his full DJ name, “Happy Harry Hard-On”) and empathetic forlornness, Harry appeals to everyone: the punks, the jocks, the nerds, the preps. Some of his advice is juvenile (“This is Hard Harry, reminding you to eat your cereal with a fork and do your homework in the dark”), but most of his admissions come from a place of deep lonesomeness—of feeling unable to connect to the people around him, and wondering whether any of it matters anyway. He’s open about being isolated in this town, irritated by his parents, and enraged by the possibility of having to contort himself into the societal mold laid out for him. He knows the words to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” by heart, and he sees in their finality a sort of freedom: 

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Ironically, of course, nobody actually knows who Hard Harry is, although he invites letters from listeners (sent to a P.O. box, to maintain the secrecy of his identity), reads them out loud, and calls the numbers included to chat. No one guesses that the man claiming to masturbate six times an hour while on the air is the same person as the conversation-averse Mark Hunter, senior at Humphrey High, who declines to discuss his essays in his writing class, walks always with his head down, and buries his nose into a book during lunch. A black market pops up at the school so that cassette tapes of Harry’s broadcasts can change hands; when Mark hears them played in the quad, he slows down to listen, a grin threatening to stretch out across his face. But his shield against others is a protection of himself, too. What he’s doing is breaking all kinds of FCC regulations, and as Mark’s father is the new school commissioner for the state of Arizona, he can’t risk getting caught. 

When one of those nightly calls during Hard Harry’s show ends in tragedy, though, two different factions spring into action to try and unmask him. Goth artist Nora (Samantha Mathis), who finds herself attracted to and enthralled by Hard Harry’s no-bullshit attitude, begins to realize that Mark might not be who he seems. And while the two of them begin to fall for each other, Principal Loretta Creswood (Annie Ross) rallies teachers, the PTA, Mark’s father, and the local media to try and find Hard Harry. Broadcast news reporters camp out at the school. Parents complain that their children are being corrupted. The teens’ insistence that Hard Harry is voicing their own anxieties and fears—that he makes them feel less alone—are disregarded. “There’s nothing to look forward to, and nothing to look up to,” Hard Harry had said, and the witch hunt waged against him isn’t exactly proving that wrong. 

Pump Up the Volume comes to life primarily through the verve and vitality of Moyle’s script, which is punctuated throughout with analyses of the American mainstream that could be dismissed as naval-gazing if they didn’t still feel accurate three decades later. The recurring condescension of older generations toward younger ones, with their predictable “When I was your age” diatribes. The superficiality of “American values” programs, especially when pushed forward by social conservatives who care more for appearances than actualities. What Moyle’s script underscores is how the adolescent desire for truth (“As long as it’s real,” is all Hard Harry asks of the letters sent to him) is an admirable undertaking, and a leap of courage. If honesty isn’t bravery, what is? Living in a screwed-up place in a screwed-up time does not make you screwed up, Hard Harry vows, and you can see the DNA of that line in another film that insisted that our self-worth is tied to more than who our parents are, or what we do, or how much money we make. “It’s not your fault,” Robin Williams’s Sean Maguire says in Good Will Hunting, and both he and Hard Harry were right. 

Equally important is the film’s soundtrack, which pulls from the snarling, unsettling sounds of the early ‘90s: the hardcore scene pioneered by Bad Brains and Henry Rollins; the experimental noise rock of Pixies and Sonic Youth; the in-your-face braggadocio of Ice-T and the Beastie Boys. Songs like “Kick Out the Jams,” “Wave of Mutilation,” and “Scenario” form Harry’s own mixtape, the intimate contents of which he shares with his listeners, and by extension, us. Sexual desire, explicit and unfiltered, or beautiful melancholy, or a desire to disappear. It all comes out in those song choices, and some of the film’s most winning moments capture Slater dancing around his character’s basement recording studio to those tracks, charmingly slipping into some of the corniest white-guy dance moves you’ve ever seen. 

The power of Slater’s performance, and how he balances the dueling demands of Hard Harry’s brusqueness and Mark’s woundedness, comes from those very contrasts: how persuasive he is when proclaiming that he knows everything versus how relatable he is when admitting he not might know anything. “There’s nothing to do anymore. Everything decent’s been done,” he announces on the first night captured in the film; on its last, he declares instead, “It’s our life! Take charge of it!” Choose your own path, demand your rights, blow up your Yale pennant and your pearls and make your own way. That core message put Pump Up the Volume alongside the likes of Dead Poets Society and Hackers in its urging for individual action, and in imagining something more fulfilling than suburban sameness. “Carpe diem.” “Hack the planet.” “Talk hard.” That upending of the status quo, championed so fulfillingly and authentically in Pump Up the Volume, feels as necessary now as it did back then.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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