Saturday, February 6, 2021

PUMP UP THE VOLUME (1990) (Warner Archive Blu-ray Review)


Label: Warner Archive
Region Code: A
Rating: R
Duration: 102 Minutes
Audio: English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1)
Director: Allan Moyle 
Cast: Christian Slater, Andy Romano, Scott Paulin, Mimi Kennedy, Ellen Greene, Samantha Mathis

Synopsis: By day, Mark Hunter (Christian Slater) is a painfully shy new kid in a small Arizona town. But by night, he’s Hard Harry, the cynical, uncensored DJ of a pirate radio station. Idolized by his high school classmates (who are unaware of his real identity), Harry becomes a hero with his fiercely funny monologues on sex, love, and rock and roll. But when he exposes the corrupt school principal, she calls in the FCC to shut Harry down. An outrageous rebel with a cause, Slater gives a brilliant performance as the reluctant hero who inspires his classmates to find their own voices of rebellion and individuality. A movie with a message, Pump Up the Volume is a raw and witty celebration of free speech that will make you laugh, make you cheer and make you think.

Coming a year after Slater's breakout role in the sardonic 
highschool-killer comedy Heathers (1989) and a year before the grunge music-explosion of 1991 came the Christian Slater (Gleaming The Cube) starring cult-classic Pump Up The Volume (1990), which was directed by Allan Moyle  (Empire Records), a gut who had his finger on 90's youth culture for a time. It's a teen-rebellion film that tapped right into the early 90's teen zeitgeist in telling the tale of an introverted teen named Mark who has been uprooted from New York City and relocated to a sanitized suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.

Mark's well-meaning but slightly out-of-touch parents, Marla (Mimi Kennedy, TV's Dharma & Greg) and Brian Hunter (Scott Paulin, Teen Wolf), are a bit concerned by their son's lack of  friends since they moved to Phoenix, but the reclusive teen has managed to find other avenue to fuel his self expression. He has secretly been using a shortwave radio gifted to him by his father to broadcast a pirate radio show under the name "Happy Harry Hard-On", which he does from a makeshift studio in his attic bedroom. His nightly broadcasts have begun to gather quite an audience with local teens who regularly gather at a local baseball field in their cars to tune in., in addition to kids selling bootleg copies of his shows around school. As his alter-ego Mark often launches into philosophical
 tirades that run the gamut from heart-felt to ribald, often while comically feigning masturbation on air, as well as spinning a kick-ass assortment of tunes, and rallying against the wrongs of the world and of his own community. 

These include shining a spotlight on his high school's administration unfairly weeding out undesirable teens in an effort to strengthen their standardized test scores, and as his father is a school district administrator he has access to records he shouldn't have. He manages to keep his vulgar alter-ego a secret from both his family and classmates, which is not too hard to accomplish as he has zero friends at school. However, a classmate named Nora (Samantha Mathis, The Clovehitch Killer) develops a crush on the vulgar on-air  personality, and she manages to sleuth his identity, much to his chagrin, as the introverted teen wants to keep a low profile. 

Part of Hard Harry's broadcast routine is reading letters sent to him by listeners via an anonymous P.O. box, then calling the letter writers on the phone to discuss their stated problems. One of these letter's comes from a troubled teen on the verge of suicide, which ends tragically, the unintended incident deeply affects Mark and he temporarily pulls the plug on the show. The local news picks up on the story of the teen suicide and places blame on Hard Harry's broadcast, which spurs the feds to get involved and attempting to triangulate and stop the increasingly popular pirate broadcast. 

My grunge-era teen nostalgia certainly plays no small part in my continued love for this rock n' roll teen-rebellion flick, but it's still a fun watch, and is probably a top-three Slater film in my book - it's up there with Heathers (1989) and Very Bad Things(1998) in my book. He is still very much in the "I saw a ton of Jack Nicholson movies as a kid and I want to act just like him" phase here, but it totally works for me, both then and now. This was Samantha Mathis' first film role and she does good work as a cool alternative chic who loves coffee and cool music. She was the type of girl I think I was looking for at the time, and never found. The baddies here are all administrators at the high school, and while they're one-dimensional caricatures it works well enough. The villains are headed by the highschool Principal Creswood (Annie Ross, The Beast Must Die), who is aided and abetted by a do-nothing guidance counselor Mr. Deaver (Robert Schenkkan) and a mean-spirited disciplinarian named Mr. Murdock (Andy Romano, Return to Horror High) Counterpoint to that we have Ellen Greene (TV's Pushing Daisies) as teacher Mrs. Emmerson, who is probably the only non-vilified adult in the whole film. Also be on the lookout for some fun appearances from Seth Green (Ticks) and Ahmet Zappa (Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror) as teen metalheads, Lala Sloatman (Amityville: A New Generation), and Cheryl Pollak (Alien Nation), the latter of whom plays a teen queen turned broken-nosed rebel. Also be on the lookout for James Hampton (the dad from Teen Wolf!) as a FCC field agent, and Billy Morisette (Ghoulies Go To College) as a flunked-out punk rocker. 

I saw this in the cinema when it first came out, being a rebellious sixteen year-old I was the perfect age for it and it spoke to be in a lot of ways. Besides being a huge Slater fan I was way into the kick-ass 90's alt-rock soundtrack which featured alternative heavyweights like Sonic Youth and Soundgarden, but also turned me onto Leonard Cohen, the movie opening with his ultimate-cool tune "Everybody Knows". However, the best tune on the soundtrack still to this day was Henry Rollins teaming-up with the Bad Brains for a full-throttled rendition of the MC5 proto-punk anthem "Kick Out the Jams", which was my introduction to the MC5. The teen angst of the flick definitely tapped into the Gen X tension that was in the air at the time, pre-figuring the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music explosion that was just around the corner.  

I loved the idea of underground pirate radio, which was a completely foreign concept to me at the time. It left it's mark on me when I moved from Upstate New York to Tucson, Arizona, sort of mirroring the main character in the film, where the better part of a decade later I ended up spinning records at the pirate station Radio Limbo 103.3 FM! It was everything I hoped it would be, but my on-air personality was nowhere near as cool as Hard Harry. It was even better than radio club back in highschool where we spun tunes over the school PA system into the lunchroom and study halls to kids who wanted to hear Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love" for the hundredth time over anything remotely cool or current. 

Audio/Video: Pump Up The Volume (1990) arrives on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive with a a new HD scan, presenting the flick in 1080p HD framed in the original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The image looks pretty great to my eyes, we get a nice thin layer of grain that exports some excellent fine detail in the close-ups, nicely resolving facial features and wisps of smoke wafting through the darkness of the character's makeshift radio studio. The bold early 90's colors looks quite good, black levels are deep and inky, things are nicely layered with solid contrast and skin tones look natural throughout. 

Audio comes by way of a solid sounding English DTS-HS MA 5.1 with optional English subtitles. The score from former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez (Sex, Lies and Videotape) sounds great in the mix but is overshadowed by the excellent soundtrack selections from Leonard Cohen, Urban Dance Squad, Soundgarden, Henry Rollins with Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Beastie Boys, and the Descendants among others. There's not a lot of surround action, this is a largely dialogue driven flick, but the fidelity is solid and there's plenty of low-end when the tunes kick in. Sadly, the only extras is a 3 minute HD trailer for the film.

The single-disc release arrives in a standard keepcase with a single-sided sleeve of artwork featuring the original movie poster with that semi-silly looking image of Slater staring out at you with those damned smoldering eyes, the same key art is featured on the Blu-ray disc. 

Special Features:
- Original Theatrical Trailer (3 min) HD

Watching the flick thirty-year's later I think it still holds up with a few caveats, it's definitely a time capsule of a specific era but I can see this appealing to "the kids" of today. I think pirate radio is analogous to the current range of podcasters, Tik-Tok-ers or YouTubers in way. Having just watched it I find myself once again pondering some underground radio-action, but now you can just live stream it or podcast it, and to this aging Gen Xer at least that's not all that cool. I wanna break some laws, not generate content for some social media site. As far as rock n' roll soundtracks go I think this is right up there with Decline of The Western Civilization (1981), River's Edge (1986), Trick Or Treat (1986), Dudes (1987) and Suburbia (1996), it's an essential rock n' roll soundtrack. The new Blu-ray from Warner Archive is quite wonderful, I wish we had some new extras to go with it, but the A/V presentation is top-notch, and long overdue! 

More screenshots from the Blu-ray: