DNA of Hitz: Christian Slater’s amazing Pump Up The Volume

Christian Slater knocked my socks off the first time I saw him in action. But it wasn’t Pump Up The Volume. It was the black comedy Heathers. I saw it one Friday night at a mate’s place on VHS.

And I’d never seen a film like it.

So when I found out Mr Slater’s next film was going to be about a DIY radio station – I was very keen to see it. And I wasn’t disappointed.

A legend after dark

Teenager Mark Hunter (Slater’s character) has recently moved to Arizona from New York with his parents. He’s socially awkward at school, but finds a new way to connect with his peers. He starts a pirate radio station in his basement, using a voice scrambler to invent a cool new alter-ego Happy Harry Hardon.

Each night at 10pm he gets onair and plays tracks from Soundgarden, The Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth. When he’s not doing that he’s putting down the corrupt staff at his highschool, or doing talkback with local teens. It’s a real Superman/Clark Kent setup with Slater literally wearing glasses and being awkward at school whilst going the opposite way after dark.

A mystery to solve

And when I say ‘the opposite of awkward’ I mean a super-cool character who smokes, talks about sex, and inspires hot girls or boys to jump around in their bedrooms to his music. “Harry” soon develops a cult following and one talkback call leads to disaster.

Meanwhile, fellow student Nora (played by the utterly hypnotic Samantha Mathis) works out who’s behind the mike. And things get more interesting from there.

“Is this all just a game to you? You can’t shout ‘fire’ in a theatre and just walk out.”

Nora, played by Samantha Mathis

Back to school

Pump Up The Volume is a teen movie in the John Hughes (Breakfast Club) style, although it goes a bit darker and grittier. It’s still the kind of American high school setup where girls are teachers’ pets, cheerleaders or sassy alt chicks. Boys are sports nuts or geeks. And adults are mostly stupid and/or corrupt.

But despite this, the film had its heart in the right place. It really captures that late teen/early 20s feeling that the world isn’t being run right, yet you can’t do much about it. Or can you? Slater’s character fires up the students to ask questions and rebel against the stifling corruption around them.

“If I knew any thing about love, I would be out there making it, instead of sitting in here talking to you guys.”

Happy Harry, played by Christian Slater

But how does all this key into the Hitz FM story?

There are many obvious differences; the film’s music is obviously much more alternative versus the dance-dominated playlist at Hitz. Our station didn’t feature talkback until its later years due to the complexity and expense. And of course, Hitz was on air ‘legally’ unlike the fictional Harry.

Hitz vs Pump Up The Volume

But there were important elements of the two stories that did match up. Both centre on kids wanting to hear ‘their’ music. Both feature energetic young announcers who lead an almost-anonymous life away from the microphone. And both started as a small radio broadcast, that later snowballed into something much bigger than the creators ever imagined.

But most of all, in both the Hitz FM and Pump Up The Volume tales, a radio station became much more than a playlist. More than a frequency on a radio dial. It became a movement, a phenomenon, a passionate cry for a generation to be heard.

Looking back

In recent years, Christian Slater has said PUTV is one of his favourite films he’s worked on. And amazingly, the director Allan Moyle has revealed that none of Slater’s radio speeches were ad-libbed! It was all memorised from the script. A very different scenario to say Robin William’s work on Good Morning Vietnam.

Pump Up The Volume is certainly ‘of its time’ in terms of technology. It’s very landline/cassette/vinyl and most definitely pre-internet. At the same time Hitz FM in its early years was very much the same. Hitz broadcasts were recorded on VHS. Songs were played on CD or vinyl. Listeners taped their fave shows on cassette.

Let’s Pump Up The Volume, now!

Very few streaming services have this film available; the only places you can rent/buy it are AppleTV or Amazon.

I’ve watched the film recently thanks to finding the DVD through a local library – a very oldschool solution. But hey, it felt right.

As Happy Harry Hardon would say…

“So be it.”

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Author: Gabe McGrath

Gabe McGrath is a radio creative and freelance writer. He helped set up 89.9 Hitz FM Melbourne in the 90s. This youth radio station caused a sensation and 30 years later many a 90s kid will smile when 'Hitz' is mentioned. Gabe is working on a book about that era and now blogs about Hitz Melbourne. GabeMcGrath.com includes tonnes of streaming audio recordings, photos, stories and behind-the-scenes info.

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