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Pump Up the Volume (1990) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

mark school nora student

Principal social themes: censorship, suicide/depression, homosexuality, education/literacy

New Line Cinema. R rating. Featuring: Christian Slater, Annie Ross, Robert Schenkkan, Ellen Greene, Samantha Mathis, Scott Paulin, Cheryl Pollak, Mimi Kennedy, Lala Sloatman. Written by Roy Huggins. Cinematography by Walt Lloyd. Edited by Janice Hampton and Larry Bock. Music by Cliff Martinez. Produced by Rupert Harvey and Sandy Stern. Directed by Allan Moyle. Color. 100 minutes.


Pump Up the Volume was a production that outgrew its teen film roots to find a larger audience largely due to superior acting and directing and a clever, well-paced script that deftly but realistically weaves numerous social issues into its storyline. The film was credited with creating a boom of interest in amateur radio in the early 1990s.


Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) is a secretive new student at Hubert H. Humphrey High School in Paris Hills, Arizona. His father, Brian Hunter, has just been appointed the new commissioner of the school district, which necessitated the recent family move to Arizona from the East. Brian buys his son a shortwave radio set so he can keep in touch with his old friends from home, but Mark is unable to contact anyone. Instead, he starts broadcasting a pirate radio signal at ten o’clock every night, sometimes for five minutes but other times for hours.

Mark completely transforms behind the microphone, assuming a cocky, brazen attitude as he plays censored recordings and rap music, and mocks the conventions and peculiarities of his new school. He electronically alters the sound of his voice for his broadcasts and uses the pseudonym “Happy Harry Hardon” as his airname. He expects that perhaps a handful of students would listen, but soon his show becomes a local student fad. Mark secretly examines his father’s files to expose poor judgments by school officials, such as the guidance counselor. He questions the pattern of student expulsions from the school. He sets up a drop box so listeners can write him, and he telephones them on the air. One of his most devoted listeners is Nora (Annie Ross), a student who works at the school library. She writes passionate letters on red stationery, but never provides her phone number. When Mark returns a book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce, Nora begins to suspect that Mark may be Happy Harry. She follows him one day and catches him opening Harry’s mail drop box. Nora confronts Mark with her discovery, but he shyly backs off. Later Miss Emerson, Mark’s English teacher, begins to suspect that Mark is the phantom broadcaster. When one student sends a letter threatening suicide, Mark calls him on the air and determines that it is not a prank. He takes him seriously, but does not try to talk him out of it. The next day, the student kills himself, and Mark is stunned and regretful. Nora encourages him, saying it was not his fault.

After the student’s death, Mark wants to discontinue his broadcasts, but Nora convinces him that too many students are now depending on him. Later on the air he calls another student who wrote a heartfelt letter admitting he is a closet homosexual. Mark calls him and helps him talk through his problems. He also calls the guidance teacher on the air, and the counselor gloats that the call has been traced. However, when the police arrive, they discover that the phantom broadcaster had used a transmitter and had tapped into someone else’s phone line. Mark’s parents become suspicious and check out his radio room one evening, and are surprised to discover him with Nora. They are secretly delighted that Mark has a girlfriend. A news station decides to pick up and broadcast Harry’s show nationwide. The high school principal becomes alarmed by the broadcasts of Happy Harry and tries a crackdown to discover his identity. She expels a number of students, including Nora. When Miss Emerson protests, she is also fired. The principal calls in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to find Harry’s studio and shut him down. To confuse the FCC monitoring trucks, Mark rigs up his mother’s jeep so he can broadcast while Nora drives him around. Miss Emerson turns over to Mark’s father a file that proves the principal has been illegally expelling students with the lowest grade averages in order to inflate the school’s ratings on test scores. Brian fires the principal. The FCC eventually captures Harry after he abandons his voice disguise. He pleads for students everywhere to take to the airways and speak up whenever the truth is suppressed. In response, a large number of student pirate radio stations begin to spring up across the country as the end credits roll.


Pump Up the Volume is a lively and energetic film that addresses a whole host of social issues in an innovative format. It is intriguing to watch Mark mature during the story in an excellent performance by Christian Slater. At first, Mark does his show simply out of boredom and for kicks. He merely plays at being a shock jock, spouting obscenity and doing outrageous bits such as pretending to masturbate while on the air. Soon, however, he starts to address his own problems, such as his chronic shyness. He becomes interested in the problems of the other students. He knows something sinister is going on at Hubert H. Humphrey High School, eventually learning that many students are being deprived of their education by the principal in order to boost test scores artificially. Ironically, his father, a dedicated educator, is on the same track, suspecting that something is wrong with the school administration and trying to learn the truth. In a way, Mark and his father are cut from the same cloth, although belonging to different generations. The one glaring error of the script is that they fail to bring them together at the climax of the film. The audience feels cheated when Mark is led away by the police, and his parents are not brought on the scene to show their reaction. Brian undoubtedly would have given his son some words of encouragement or support, given the background of school corruption against which they both were fighting. Another misstep is the presence of the head of the FCC, who personally comes to Arizona to track down Happy Harry. This seems somewhat unrealistic, but it allows the airing of his comments against free speech and censorship, which is the issue at the heart of the film. The segments dealing with suicide, homosexuality, identity crisis, and the right to education come across as sincere and are very well done.

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