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Listening Hard: 25 Years of 'Pump Up The Volume'

We spoke to everyone involved in the making of the film that inspired critics and popularized Christian Slater.

by Cam Lindsay
Aug 24 2015, 4:45pm

Everyone remembers the first album that made them fall in love with music. Mine was the soundtrack to Pump Up The Volume, a little film that opened up on August 24, 1990 at #15 in the box office—right behind Problem Child, which was in its fifth week. At the time, I was an average pre-teen, listening to MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice and whatever else Top 40 radio suggested. But there was something about that soundtrack’s middle-fingered salute—a perfect companion to the film’s plot of a youth-led uprising—that rescued me from ever hearing Too Legit To Quit and Mind Blowin’.

The film told the story of Mark Hunter (the cool as fuck Christian Slater), a depressed high schooler in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, who hacks his shortwave radio and launches a pirate radio station. Under the moniker Happy Harry Hard-On, Mark slowly earns a cult following amongst his fellow screwed up students, doling out bullshit-free advice, dropping graffiti-worthy catch phrases (“So be it,” “Talk hard”) and challenging his school’s questionable expulsions of at-risk students.

Pump Up The Volume went on to earn a modest $11.5 million in the U.S. and earn critical acclaim, not to mention help Christian Slater capitalize on his bad-assery in Heathers and become the hottest young actor in the universe. But perhaps more than anything, the film’s soundtrack introduced unsuspecting viewers like myself to a whole group of artists that were on the verge of bringing alternative music to the masses. On the album were Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, Pixies, and three fantastic covers: Concrete Blonde covering Leonard Cohen, Cowboy Junkies doing Robert Johnson, and Bad Brains with Henry Rollins offering a disorderly take on the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams.” Artists that weren’t on the album, but appeared in the film included Leonard Cohen, Descendents, Was (Not Was) and Beastie Boys with an outtake from the Licensed To Ill called “The Scenario,” which to date has never received a commercial release.

In the last few years, Pump Up The Volume has received its share of retrospective love, not only in how unappreciated it was at the time of its 1990 release, but also how the film was also far ahead of its time, predating blogs and podcasts as a way of teens dealing with social anxieties.

In honour of the film’s 25th anniversary, Noisey jogged the memories of director/writer Allan Moyle (Empire Records, New Waterford Girl), original score composer Cliff Martinez (Drive, Solaris), and music supervisor Kathy Nelson (Repo Man, High Fidelity), to learn all about how the soundtrack came to exist.

THE SCENARIO

Noisey: So where did the idea for Pump Up The Volume come from?
Allan Moyle: Previous to this, there had been pirate radio stations on abandoned oil rigs off the coast of England. They were not subject to local laws controlling air content, like the FCC. So they were underground and I’d heard about them. And later there was a movie made about them where Philip Seymour Hoffman played the DJ [2009’s Pirate Radio]. I was kind of disappointed when I saw the movie… or maybe I was jealous. And before Pump Up The Volume was Good Morning Vietnam and Talk Radio, which was a play first. So it wasn’t the most original idea, but I wrote it about a suicidal young guy who was announcing his own suicide on the radio. And I ended up having too much fun playing with all of the different ways he could kill himself. He was a mordant, funny kid but he had no intention of killing himself, he just thought it would be cool to do it on air for his ten listeners. And it had a darker title too. And then Sandy Stern read it and said, “This movie is way too dark! You’ve got to make it friendlier.” So there is one kid that commits suicide in it, and we cleaned it up. I’m grateful to him because it probably wouldn’t have been made or had Christian Slater in it without him.

So the idea of a depressed kid talking to the world, and having his own private outlet really appealed to me. I wrote this character in his parents’ basement. How many people are listening in the beginning of the movie? Probably 20, and then it snowballs. And that was the charm of the idea to me. Of course, we then dramatized it and put a helicopter chase in it. Who would have thought there would be a helicopter? In my first version he was shut down by the FCC because what he was saying was considered dangerous, encouraging kids to kill themselves. And I just built it from there with help from Sandy.

What made you go with Christian Slater for the lead role of Happy Harry Hard-On?
We needed a young guy and he was the hot young guy. I wanted John Cusack. And he read the script and liked it but said, “Allan, I’ve just played my last teenage role. Sorry. If you got me last year I’d have jumped at it.” Christian had been in Gleaming The Cube, and I wasn’t too impressed. But I later saw his fantastic style in Heathers, but by that time we’d already got him. There weren’t that many young cool guys back then. It was a small list of cool 16-year-olds. So we got him and we were thrilled. And then we worked with him and were even more thrilled. He was perfect for the part.

A couple years ago he said Pump Up The Volume is one of his favourite movies he’s worked on.
Oh, wow, well he was young and there were no impossibilities. He was a charming young man. Guess what he ate for breakfast every day? He made soup out of maple syrup and crunched up bacon! He was too young and natural to read his lines the night before, so I’d go and do it with him in the morning so he would know the lines. And I’d be rehearsing with him while he ate this scary concoction. But try it some day because it’s delicious.

Did Christian recommend any music or share opinions?
No, he was remarkable that way. He really didn’t care. He also didn’t care to improvise. There isn’t one improvised syllable in the movie. That’s not his style. He can say the same line over and over again and make it real, which is gold. But he’s not like Dustin Hoffman, bombarding us with ideas. He’s the opposite. I wish I could describe in words just how easy he was to work with. Strange kid. He had to dance a couple of times in the movie, and he didn’t want to dance. So he said, “Tell you what. I’ll bring my friend in and we’ll dance together and you can shoot my side of it.” It was a cool idea. It worked. It’s not that he couldn’t dance, he was just embarrassed. He was so young he didn’t want to do the crying scene! All adult actors would give their right arm to cry, because it shows how good you are. But he was like 15 or so.

KICKING OUT THE JAMS

Kathy, how did you get involved with the movie?
Kathy Nelson: At that point I was working at MCA Records doing soundtracks. I always scouted filmmakers with great taste in music, or at least the music I liked, and I always called the trades to see what movies were being made that appealed to me in terms of putting the soundtrack together. My job wasn’t necessarily to find the songs, but oftentimes it would make things simpler when I put forward an artist that was on our label. And Allan, I just loved his taste in music, and the idea of what the film was about. It’s hard to do a soundtrack where, A) you don’t have a movie that calls for songs, and B) when you don’t have a director that is open to music and has good taste. The most obvious movies to me that I’ve worked on were High Fidelity and Grosse Point Black, where they were all super song-heavy. The same with Pump Up The Volume.

The movie is very driven by music…
Nelson: In a way it’s supposed to be. His voice is the music. Because he doesn’t talk, he’s got this awkward personality… it’s almost that his character chooses to interact through the music he decides to play.
Moyle: There is a lot of music in the movie because that’s the style of the music. And I like songs. Even though Cliff had a great score, we started with a song. And I like telling stories with songs. If a song is good and it’s used right, it automatically grabs the audience by the throat with whatever emotion you want to get in there. I’m surprised people don’t use songs more often. I guess people prefer score. That’s my little prejudice. That’s why we needed songs, and that’s why there’s a soundtrack.

Continued below...

How did you choose which songs to use?
Moyle: We were thinking about a lot of songs and we had a limited budget. A lot of people’s favourite temp tracks were either unaffordable or they’d been used in other movies. So you want to be four deep with choices. You go back and forth with the almost free ones to the ones where you hope the band will give you a break on the price. There wasn’t one magical moment where I decide on the music. In fact, I don’t decide. It’s teamwork. Some songs you hope you can afford. I was writing to some artists asking to use their music. For example, Leonard Cohen was a friend of my wife at that time. So he gave us a break on “Everybody Knows.” But the person that owned the song—because Leonard doesn’t own a song—was a total maniac, so we didn’t think we would get it. There was a kid in the editing room who kept wanting to play me songs. He knew the movie better than I did, and he had one great song after another.

Allan, you mentioned artists you couldn’t afford…
Moyle: Kathy controlled the budget, but it was very spongeable. If I had my way I’d have put in the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” But I didn’t have my way. Maybe the movie’s better because some of them were unknowns. But [producer] Sandy Stern and I had a lot of control of the movie. Luckily New Line was a happy partner, and Kathy was a happy partner. It all went very well. This was a low budget movie and some of the songs cost a lot, so I had to beg. That’s not unusual. I wish I could say we had a vision and followed it, but we just stumbled forward happily and had a great time. They let us do what we wanted, so we ended up with something special. There are songs where you play them against the footage, the hair on your arms stands up and you know it’s right. Like the song written by Charlie Manson.

Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation”?
Moyle: “Wave of Mutilation”! My favourite song in the movie. I could sing it to you but I couldn’t remember the name. A senior moment. The Pixies told me they used Charlie Manson’s lyrics.

With Pixies, Soundgarden, Bad Brains and Henry Rollins on the soundtrack, there seemed to be this strong push towards the underground.
Nelson: It came with the film. That’s what Allan’s taste was, and because the character was sort of a troubled guy, an underground character, it just made sense. I don’t think this movie would be the same with Taylor Swift in it, or whatever yesterday’s Taylor Swift was. I think that the choice of this kind of music was part of Allan’s vision.
Moyle: Yeah, I liked those bands, so that’s where we started. I knew Leonard Cohen because I’m from Montreal. And I was married to his sound engineer, Leanne Unger, my first wife, so I knew him personally too.

I wanted to ask you about Leonard Cohen…
Moyle: What about Leonard Cohen? Why we had Concrete Blonde cover his song? We had them do it. The head of New Line, Bob Shaye, thought Leonard Cohen’s version was too down head to be the opening song of the movie. He said, “God that’s dreary! So have it covered by a more pop artist.” So Concrete Blonde was a few degrees more pop than Leonard was. And they had authentic, indie cred. So we paid them to do it and they did a good job. But I couldn’t stop longing for Leonard’s version because we temped it in there, we wrote to that. And we used it in the end. Only at the last minute did Bob say we could use it. So then we had two versions of it, and Kathy had already paid Concrete Blonde. As you know though, there are two purposes: the sale of the album and the sale of the movie. So she wanted Concrete Blonde on the album, and I wanted Leonard Cohen in the movie. All’s well that ends well.
Nelson: It’s because nobody would have wanted [Cohen] at the time because Concrete Blonde was more relevant to the young audience the movie was aiming for.

There are so many other great songs in the film that weren’t on the soundtrack, like Descendents, Beastie Boys, Ice-T, Was (Not Was). Why is that?
Moyle: Those were all a little leftfield for the pop crowd. These people are in the business of selling records and I didn’t have control over their choices. I was just glad that we had the money to buy some of these songs because of the album. And as a result the movie was better. It could have been that my favourite song, “Wave of Mutilation,” didn’t get in because it’s pretty dark. Who knows what battles went down at the time. Kathy might.
Nelson: I can’t remember the specifics right now, but at the time you could only put a certain number of songs on because of mechanical royalties. And Beastie Boys, I know for a fact, were always very, very difficult. They did not want their songs on soundtracks. And with regards to the others, I can only make a fairly educated guess that it was what Allan felt was easier to get and was affordable, as well as the songs that fit together.

That Beastie Boys song “The Scenario” has never been released before, aside from bootlegs. Apparently it’s because they didn’t like that song.
Nelson: Well that would fit with their personalities. They were really specific with what they wanted to do. They were not easy at all. Now you can never license a Beastie Boys song.
Moyle: Isn’t that interesting. I think the Beastie Boys may have said, “We like this movie so we’ll throw you this bone, a B-side or a C or F-side.” They weren’t gonna exploit it. It was Kathy’s decision which of the 40 songs in the movie became the 12 songs on the album. And so she gets a lot of credit for picking the good ones. That’s her job.

Allan, after Pump Up The Volume you made Empire Records, another film that went on to find a cult following, and an even bigger soundtrack. Was that a surprise at all?
Moyle: Yeah, I was shocked because that film did so poorly when it opened. Any director with any movie, or especially me, you think of the movie and 50 things that could have been better, shoulda, woulda, coulda, and even in creative control the director has his period of time and the director’s cut is over. So if the studio wants to they can recut it behind the director’s back. And in that case the studio, their suggestion to the music supervisor was somebody totally pop, so I had to fight just to make that movie half-pop and half-interesting. But the record store it was portraying was very leftfield. So that was very tricky getting that album out. To make a long story short, I had a lot of regrets. And then, what, 20 years later, I was invited to a screening by Hollywood Forever’s outdoor screenings. There were 4,000 kids on blankets and I did a Q&A with a lot of the cast. We ate brownies, which is from the movie. The guy who played Kimo brought real brownies and we all got high. Every time I take brownies, I always get higher than I plan to. So I’m standing up at the front and all 4,000 people danced and sang to the last song [The The’s “This Is The Day”]. Isn’t that amazing? And that song almost didn’t make it into the movie. I had to fight to get it in because the producer was like, “A waltz? Are you crazy?”

SETTLING THE SCORE

How did Cliff get the job?
Moyle:
We thought [Sex, Lies & Videotape] was great. Because of the association and his talent and because he was cheap and young! So, all of the vectors came together and we got lucky. Composers are difficult to work with because you need the material when you need it. If they’re not on the same schedule as you it’s a disaster. He was good, fast, easy to work with, and a nice guy. All of the above. I remember him with great pleasure. He was a bit dark too. And he intimidated me because he was dark. But all the better. I couldn’t afford him now though! I feel proud that I was part of his career.

Cliff, what do you remember about working with Allan?
Martinez: The initial meeting with Allan was colourful. He took a bunch of Polaroids of me while we were talking, which was unusual. He was flamboyant. But I don’t remember conversations about the film score, just that he had a striking presence. My first encounter with him was memorable.

This was only your second film score. How confident were you going into this project?
Martinez: Not confident at all. I just had Sex, Lies & Videotape under my belt, which I thought was a very one-of-a-kind type of film score and a one-of-a-kind type of film. So I didn’t feel confident at all. It was more of conventional film score. Allan Moyle came to me and suggested that he wanted something similar to Sex, Lies & Videotape, so I had a more than usual kind of apprehension. It was still very new to me. Nobody had previously heard of me, so doing Sex, Lies & Videotape definitely got my foot in the door. And perhaps the experience of doing one film made doing my second film easier.

Your background is in punk rock, and even though your scores are, it sounds like your approach was.
Martinez: As far as the music went, no, it wasn’t punk rock. But when you just go ahead and do something without the training or without the experience, that was punk rock. When you stick your neck out and call yourself a film composer without the credentials or résumé, that was punk rock.

How do you feel about it your score now?
Martinez: I kind of look back at it as my childhood, my formative years. I really didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but I didn’t feel able to do some things in a standard, conventional way, so I had to try doing them another way. So, I guess in some ways my earlier scores were a lot more interesting because I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Did it ever get a proper release?
Martinez: No, it didn’t. The closest thing is I have the tracks on my website. So far no one has come after me because I don’t own that music. As long as I’m not making any music off it I can put it on my website. But no, it was never officially released.

You’ve had remarkable success the past decade scoring Drive, Solaris, and The Knick. Pump Up The Volume isn’t exactly your most recognized work.
Martinez: It’s an older film, and my recollection of it was that it was an underground cult film. So a 25-year-old cult film from the 1990s might not stick in some people’s head. In fact, Sex, Lies & Videotape is often in that same category. I think maybe both of those films will come back in a few more years and be rediscovered. But Pump Up The Volume was never a big film in its time, so it might not outgrow its cult following.

WAVE OF APPRECIATION

The film predates the internet, and yet Harry and his radio is basically what we have now with blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels. How do you feel about the movie, looking back on it now?
Martinez: It felt like the rebellion of the Pump Up The Volume was a generation removed from mine. So I couldn’t relate to the style of rebellion. Certainly I could relate to teenage rebellion, but I remember thinking at the time that it felt like a movie written by adults for the young generation without actually being of that generation. It felt to me like Hollywood’s idea of teenage rebellion. It’s only when people come up to me and talk about the film that I realize how authentic and sincere it was.
Nelson: I remember loving this project. When you have to watch a movie over and over again, it’s really hard when you don’t love it. I loved working with Allan. He was so open and enthusiastic, and interested in ideas with who could cover this song, who was on the label. So it was fun. It was a long time ago, so I had to rewatch it to remind myself.
Moyle: I was shocked myself. You know how it ends with these voices announcing themselves? That is so internet! Blogs and podcasts! That scene still gives me the shivers because it’s such a powerful idea that kids in their rooms all over America can be expressed. And then wow, it happened! And then people kept asking me to do an updated version of it. But what would you do? How could you do it? So that’s why I haven’t done it. If you can phone me tomorrow with a good idea we could have the movie made. But we’d have to have a good idea.

I doubt you can find an actor like Christian Slater to do it.
Moyle: Well how about Christian’s character has gone out and done all kinds of things and failed, all alone in a basement apartment somewhere. He’s had a tough 25 years. Because I’m sure Christian would do it again if we had a great story. Cam, that’s your mission there if you care to dream one up.

Just recently Christian Slater said this movie is special and the one he’d like to be remembered for. Where does Pump Up The Volume rank in your career?
Nelson: I think it was a standout but I didn’t creatively contribute to as much. Allan brought so much to it. There are some films I have to work so much harder on, but this one, if my memory serves me, came together really easily. Artists wanted to be on it. Now, when you talk about getting a song for a movie… I did the first three Fast & The Furious movies. Nobody knew what the first one was, so it was hard to get songs on that soundtrack. But when you get to the seventh film, everyone wants to be on it because they know. A movie like Dangerous Minds was very hard for me because everyone thought it was a disaster, so finding a song like “Gangasta’s Paradise,” a song that the studio didn’t even want to release, was very hard.
Martinez: I think the early films of my career are all very crucial. They had a big impact on the way that I was typecast by Hollywood, doing a certain type of film. So all of these first few films help direct me to becoming the composer that I am today. I think they’re all influential. This is one of the first films in my first decade of composing that was not a Steven Soderbergh production, so it was kind of important to realize that not every director in Hollywood thinks like Steven does. I think that was the biggest lesson I learned from Pump Up The Volume.

As Cliff can attest, soundtracks and scores on vinyl are big business right now. What are the chances Pump Up The Volume will get a reissue?
Moyle: It’s not my call. I don’t own the album. I don’t know if the idea is lost there. I would say yes, but I’m no longer the person to do that. I’d be thrilled with any kind of recognition, as I am with your recognition.

Finally, did any of you realize that the film has turned 25?
Moyle: I didn’t know! Wow.
Nelson: No, it feels like yesterday. It’s crazy to me. The only way I know how to tell time is what project I was working on at the time. I can’t tell you what year anything is!
Martinez: No, in fact it didn’t really register until you just said it. It feels more like 10 or 15 years. It’s scary that it’s 25 years.

Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. He is on Twitter.

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