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THIS FILM WILL "Pump" you up!

Published Aug. 21, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

++++Talk hard. Talk loud. Pump up the volume.

The best movie ever made about teen-age alienation opens today. Pump Up The Volume concerns a high school student who uses his ham radio to break into the FM airwaves and rant nightly about drugs, sex and the disillusion of adolescence.

Pump Up the Volume is part Talk Radio, part Blackboard Jungle and part Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Call it Rebel With a Cause, and listen good, because it's the most frank, startling and radically opinionated movie ever made for young viewers. Pump Up the Volume calls for teens to wake up, take charge of their lives and make a difference in the world. It urges them not to sell out to the system, like their parents, many of whom were activists during the 1960s.

Pump Up the Volume's main character, deejay "Hard Harry," is the Lenny Bruce of the Why Bother? Generation. His voice rages over the Arizona airwaves like a hot-wired spirit in the night:

"Sex is out. Drugs are out. Politics are out. Everything's on hold. We definitely need something new."

Harry raps about education, pollution and the lack of leadership in America. He broadcasts the Beastie Boys Scenario and Ice T's Girls L.G.B.N.A.F., cuts that don't get airplay on so-called progressive stations.

Hard Harry, better known as Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), loathes suburbia. A recent transplant from the East Coast, he views Paradise Hills, Ariz., as the new-tract housing hell it actually is: Blocks upon blocks of identical houses surrounded by strip malls, all rising from the red sandstone desert like an artificial oasis.

Writer-director Allan Moyle uses Hard Harry and Pump Up the Volume to expose the dark side of Steven Spielberg's suburbia. He finds discontentment among its youth, corruption in its school system, a sense of helplessness among parents who are unable to communicate with their teen-age children.

At the same time, Moyle creates a poignant story about the emerging bond between introverted Mark Hunter and a classmate, Nora (Samantha Mathis), who is Hard Harry's biggest fan. Nora must reconcile the differences between Mark and his alter ego, Harry, whom she worships like a latter-day Christ figure and whose pirate broadcasts have attracted nationwide attention.

When a student caller commits suicide after speaking with Hard Harry on the air, the school administration, Paradise Hills community and FCC go hunting for Harry rather than search for the underlying causes of teen-age malaise.

Pump Up the Volume deftly juggles the witch hunt with Mark's feeling of guilt over his classmate's death, his initial fear of Nora and his resentment toward his parents. It is less successful in its indictment of Paradise Hill's top-ranked, Gestapo-run school system.

Pump Up the Volume, nevertheless, speaks volumes about the pain of adolescence. It sides with the students, yet wisely presents parents and most faculty members as intelligent, caring individuals.

Mark's folks love him. They merely fall back on their parents' rhetoric _ "When I was your age . . ." _ when communication falters. Mark's English teacher (Ellen Greene) tries to encourage his participation, but he is too angry to respond.

Christian Slater fulfills the promise of Heathers and Young Guns II. Pump Up The Volume is his movie from the first crackle of static to the last. He carries it vigorously and profanely, with an underlying sense of vulnerability.

Slater's awkward, blemished-faced charm is supremely winning. The geek wins out. His voice is heard. His character's distrust of authority _ "It's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your parents are?" _ his search for honesty _ "The truth is a virus" _ wins the hearts and minds of his listeners and the love of a fantasy girl.

Samantha Mathis is nothing less. While her blue-eyed beauty is astounding, her most salient quality is her intensity. She drives Pump Up the Volume with her passion for Harry and his ideas.

Harry may say it, but Mathis' Nora feels it: "It's time. It begins with us. You and me. The whole world is longing for healing."

Pump up the volume.


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