Allan Moyle’s Pump up the Volume celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. Soundtracking columnist Shane McNeil looks at the film’s music and the impact it had on the future of cinema’s relationship with pop and the companion album
There are so many elements of Allan Moyle’s Pump up the Volume that would seem totally foreign to today’s teenage audiences.
Yet, as the film celebrates its 25th anniversary on Aug. 24, its “of the moment”-ness is what makes it one of the seminal films of its generation. The idea that a suburban Phoenix kid (Christian Slater) can steal the imagination of his high school with a pirate radio broadcast is a nearly-impossible sell to today’s audiences. Too much has changed.
However, in 1990 the filmmakers came up with a winning formula: One of the hottest movie stars going, teen angst, an anti-censorship stance and a killer soundtrack.
The film does well to set the scene for Slater’s “Happy Harry Hard-On,” beginning with a pan over the sleepy suburbs as he delivers his nightly sermon on the horrors of high school and the concerns – the government, the environment, et cetera – that ruled the day. Once the credits start to roll, his high school classmates start on making his previous night’s show go viral, by exchanging cassette copies.
After getting a taste for his audience, Moyle sends the film back to Harry’s broadcast set-up, where we see stacks of cassettes piled alongside receivers and microphones. Harry drops the needle on his theme song, and the show begins.
The reason Harry’s show is believable as a lightning rod for his classmates is two-pronged, really. Sure, he gets cachet and a reputation for his illicit rants and perverted antics, but what he also provides – in the true spirit of pirate radio – is music that his classmates aren’t hearing anywhere else.
A look back at the charts from 1990 reveals that pop was dominating the airwaves. Madonna, MC Hammer and Sinead O’Connor were topping charts, but the first shot inside Harry’s makeshift studio reveals what he’s listening to and spreading throughout his school: Dubbed copies of an early Soundgarden EP and The Cure alongside the Pixies’ classic “Doolittle”.
Now viewed by music critics as the top acts of the day, it’s not just that music that gets heavy rotation from Harry, but also lesser-known acts like Camper van Beethoven and hip hop acts like Ice-T and Above the Law that probably weren’t getting a lot of airplay around white suburban Phoenix in 1990.
The film resonated for a lot of reasons, picking up on the themes of lonerism and suicidal thoughts that helped make another Slater vehicle – Heathers – a cult hit the previous year. The music is as essential to the appeal and it’s likely why Moyle went to such lengths to include the tapes over the opening credits. Harry even dips into the late 70s and early 80s punk scenes.
Beyond the bands represented there’s another angle to Pump up the Volume that set the scene for the soundtracks to follow in the 1990s: The idea that a film’s soundtrack album should be a destination for top bands’ b-sides and rarities.
While the film features Richard Hell and Soundgarden the soundtrack itself is loaded with covers and alternate versions. It’s not Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” that appears on the companion CD but a version by Concrete Blonde alongside Cowboy Junkies covering Robert Johnson and Bad Brains covering MC5. The definition of the soundtrack broadened from the curation of recognizable oldies that propelled Dirty Dancing and The Big Chill up the charts to the eclecticism that bred Trainspotting and Singles’ discs in the years to come.
Interestingly, the film also features a big-time rarity from the Beastie Boys, in the form of “The Scenario”. The track was left off the band’s “Licensed to Ill” for its controversial content and has since been basically wiped from the Beasties’ history for its misogyny, violence and glorification of smoking crack.
It’s quaint to look back at the idea of finding a pirate broadcast on the FM dial or buying dubbed cassettes off friends in a world decades away from on-demand programming and carefully curated music blogs. But at the same time, it’s important to also recognize that what Pump up the Volume still represents 25 years on is that everyone still needs a source to expand their own musical horizons.
Let’s leave it with another rarity from Happy Harry’s personal hit parade.