A Look Back: Pump Up the Volume

If you were a teenage girl in an eighties/nineties movie, there turned out to be quite a few occasions in which it was permissible for your character to remove her top, besides the obvious (skinny dipping, changing clothes and as a prelude to sexual activity).  You could also whip it off if your companion on a cross-country journey home for break called you “repressed,” as in “The Sure Thing.”  Or you could do so to prove that you were actually female as happens at the climax (sorry) of “Just One of the Guys.”

Yet another cinematic opportunity for a teen girl to disrobe would be if the father of her quasi-boyfriend was pounding on the basement door demanding to be let in because he’s half-convinced that his troubled loner son is operating a pirate radio show and corrupting the entire student body.  This will turn out to be a perfect way to reassure him that nothing bad is going on, and there’s no longer any need to send him to a shrink.  This may sound farfetched but is actually what happens in “Pump Up the Volume,” in which Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater play the girlfriend and pirate radio host respectively.

Even without that scene, however, it’s clear from the beginning that this is another movie where the parents are going to be portrayed as clueless as best, and cruelly authoritarian at worst.  This is one of those movies which features a Free Spirit who appears out of nowhere to shake things up, cause formerly docile people to think for themselves, and who must ultimately be punished, although in this movie, what becomes of Christian’s character is left up to the imagination.  To make these plots work, it’s necessary to have at least one villain who has no empathy to the point where in real life, you might wonder if he’s sociopathic.  “Pump Up the Volume,” has a school principal that fits this bill nicely, as well as other adults who become upset when they realize how their children are being influenced by this radio host.  (OK, this was kind of plausible in the pre-social network era.)

When I was growing up, all sorts of things – Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, MTV were at first thought to be dangerous influences on the young ‘uns but later turned out not to be or at least not as bad as first supposed.  However, in “Pump Up the Volume,” the concerned parents may have a point, as (spoiler alert) one boy winds up taking his own life after being given terrible advice by Christian over the air, since Christian is not a shrink but a troubled teen himself.  Christian becomes a scapegoat, although he is really only doing the show because he can’t reach any of his old friends after moving. We later learn that the parents are the ones who purchased the whole radio set up in the first place, although the fact that their son might be the mysterious radio host never occurs to them, at least not seriously.  Since Christian’s disconnection with his parents mirrors the ones his classmates have with theirs, he winds up striking a chord when he takes to the air to complain about his problems.  And though he’s ultimately quieted, the seeds of rebellion have been planted, and though no one winds up standing on their desks, they do begin stations of their own.  At least until they discover how to access the Internet.





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