Pump Up the Volume (1990)


I think the movies we see when we’re impressionable teenagers have the greatest impact on our lives. As a quiet kid who started finding his voice in high school, Pump Up the Volume influenced and inspired me. The movie is about a shy student (Christian Slater) who uses a shortwave radio to hold an anonymous late night program. Before long, the entire school is listening, writing letters, and calling in to discuss their problems. But after one student kills himself and another reveals a dark secret, the adults call in the FCC to discover the deejay’s identity and shut him down.

Watching the film again all these years later, the message is somewhat muddled — part ‘rebel without a cause,’ part ‘free speech’ sermon. But there are some scenes that still speak to me like they did twenty years ago. The most powerful ones are where Slater talks to his listeners about abandoning shame and surviving high school. I love how the radio program brings all the various high school cliques together. In the privacy of their homes and cars, they surrender their defenses and finally hear each other — the jocks, the freaks, the nerds, the outsiders, everyone.

At one point, a gay kid calls Slater for advice. Slater and his listeners hear the kid out as he shares a humiliating experience. I was deep in the closet when I first saw the movie on home video, so it had a profound effect on me. It told me I wasn’t alone. It could have been a person that did this, but there you have it. The power of movies.

With Samantha Mathis and Ellen Greene. Written and directed by Allan Moyle (Empire Records).

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