Was Top Gun a Film About Music?
This week, the iconic Tom Cruise classic Top Gun turns 30. It’s the rare case of a movie that was such an omnipotent blockbuster permanently permeating pop culture that its sheer ubiquity might make its presence underrated. So much so, that anyone born in the last three decades might take for granted that they live in a post-Top Gun world, never having known one where Top Gun didn’t exist. The film itself is a perfect storm of the mid-'80s at their most '80s, celebrating big things, fast things, shiny things and still managing to ooze machismo all over my new carpet after playing the VHS videocassette of it today.
Now, there are plenty of other ways to watch Top Gun, but what would you? Top Gun became the then-highest selling video of all time, moving a Val Kilmer-cool level of 3.3 million copies by its second year on the market. A quick glance at the back of the VHS box art offers a clue as to another reason why Top Gun was such a smash and remains a cultural touchstone - the music. In quite the rare credit, beneath the director and studio name on the box itself it boards “ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK AVAILABLE ON COLUMBIA RECORDS AND CASSETTES.” In other words, the music of Top Gun was a big deal. How big? Well, how does going nine times platinum and being number one on the Billboard charts for five weeks sound?
Yes, the music of Top Gun is more than just the driving force. It’s essentially the plot of the film. For as much as the conflict and characters may seem confusing when boiled down to soundbites and scenes, it’s the music that makes it a feature-length enterprise. The film opens with the Grammy-winning “Top Gun Anthem” by Harold Faltermeyer who previously made your 80s soundtrack dreams come true with “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop. The synth and electric guitar that the music of the film is built around puts the viewers into the tremendous marvel that is the film’s fighter jets. With the on-screen technical marvel (and really the most impressive aspect of the film) being what we see in the skies, it’s the cutting edge of modern music technology that further elevates the film experience into a celebration of mankind’s foray into technology. A celebration that continues into the surprisingly strong video game adaptation of the theme. Not only can mankind now competitively fly, but our synths and solos can soar right alongside them.
Of course, you know where we’re going next.
The “Danger Zone!” Kenny Loggins created this little miracle and flew to the top of the charts, bringing our testosterone levels with him along the way. How can you not want to conquer everything in front of you and show Val Kilmer that you don’t need to play by the rules to prove you’re the best although he’s probably right but it doesn’t matter because you’re in love with your teacher and full of attitude, right?! You’re a Maverick, Maverick! But there’s only one feeling even “Danger Zone” couldn’t capture. “Love.”
Fortunately, Top Gun has its own “Love Theme” so our bases are covered. Berlin’s ballad “Take My Breath Away (Love Theme From Top Gun)” is much more than a mere love “theme,” but is essentially a love “indicator.” Just about every single time Maverick and his teacher/love interest Charlie are on-screen together, those synths come in. No hyperbole. Just as the “da-duh da-duh” was an audible sharks fin in Jaws, that “bow-bow buh ba-bow” of those first few keyboard notes nudges our collective elbows with “he loves her, it’s love, get it?” About 15 years later, Berlin would square off with hair metal favorites Warrant on Comedy Central’s short-lived gameshow VS., of which no footage on the internet exists, and both bands’ members either feigned not knowing the others’ work or outright mocked it. They probably should have put aside their feelings and played some volleyball instead.
There we go! Of course we had to mention the infamous volleyball scene set to Kenny Loggins’ “Playing With the Boys.” Oily muscle-bound hunks in jeans playing volleyball on the beach, just being dudes. It’s usually the go-to when people bring up the film’s homoerotic undertones, down to the outright begging for Maverick to play one more game, but he has to meet up with his love interest, as indicated by the “Take My Breath Away” synths that immediately begin as soon as he exits the frame. And how did he woo this lovely lass?
Why with “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” of course! One of film’s diegetic musical numbers that’s almost Von Trier-ian with how it works its way into the scene, it’s a moment that might be creepy today be remains one of Cruise’s most iconic onscreen moments. So much so that he famously recreated it during his wedding to Katie Holmes. Moments like this, or perhaps the couples coming together to sing “Great Balls of Fire” might be the most memorable songs performed in the film (even though they weren’t officially included on the commercially released soundtrack until its 1999 re-release) but there’s one great music moment in the film that honestly goes unheralded when it probably represents the biggest part of why Top Gun’s resonated with audiences for so long.
Maverick’s reaction “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” articulating a very specific memory may seem like a mundane throwaway filler anecdote to set-up discussing his father, but his character being stopped mid-first-date by hearing a song and telling a story about how his mother loved hearing it repeated over and over says something deeper about the movie itself. The comfort of that familiarity, the feeling of a song that will always remain the same no matter where we go or what we do. It’s a magical thing. It’s what connects every major moment in the film. It’s why Top Gun can even be considered a story and not just a series of scenes finding excuses to jump in planes. It’s a hallmark of how songs can be tied to movies, as the film is forever tied to the songs it contains. This is Top Gun, a danger zone that takes your breath away while playing with the boys. So when you see that Top Gun CD with its blue-and-red “Best Value” sticker staring up at you from the “deals” bin at Best Buy or watching you from behind an overpriced copy of Steve Miller Band's Greatest Hits at a gas station, think about that loving feeling you’ll never lose.
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