TOP GUN – Harold Faltermeyer
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Top Gun was the highest grossing film of 1986, made a global superstar of its leading man Tom Cruise, and paved the way for a series of testosterone-soaked action-dramas helmed by über-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer that would dominate American cinema for years to come, and virtually define the look, feel, and sound of an entire decade. The film, which was directed by Tony Scott and written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, follows the fortunes of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a brash and cocky young fighter pilot in the US Navy who – despite his disdain for authority and overall recklessness in the air – is given the chance to attend the Navy’s elite school in California, colloquially known as ‘top gun’. Once enrolled in the school, Maverick and his wingman ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) annoy the senior officers, and come close to being thrown out on multiple occasions, but continue to excel, much to the disgust of Maverick’s rival, the arrogant but talented ‘Iceman’ Kazanski (Val Kilmer). Further complicating matters is the fact that Maverick has begun a relationship with Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), despite the fact that she is a brilliant astrophysicist, and one of his instructors at the Academy.
Much has been said about Top Gun’s legacy as an iconic 1980s classic, especially the way it epitomizes much of the decade’s attitude towards hyper-masculinity, and the way it celebrates defiant individualism, as well as its influence on fashion and music. The latter comes via its soundtrack, one of the most popular and successful albums of the decade, in any genre. The original soundtrack album spawned at least four hit songs, including “Danger Zone” and “Playing With the Boys” by Kenny Loggins, “Heaven in Your Eyes” by Loverboy, and most notably “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, which won an Oscar for its songwriters Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock. “Take My Breath Away” was an especially massive hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and selling more than 1.2 million copies world-wide. You couldn’t escape Terri Nunn’s breathy, haunting vocals, or Giorgio Moroder’s moody synth chords, during that summer.
The score for Top Gun was by German electronic composer Harold Faltermeyer, who had scored several of Simpson and Bruckheimer’s previous pictures, including Beverly Hills Cop in 1984, and who had also enjoyed success on films such as Thief of Hearts in 1984 and Fletch in 1985. The mid-80s was Faltermeyer’s golden period as he, along with contemporaries like Giorgio Moroder and Brad Fiedel, brought his influential and popular synth-pop sound to numerous major Hollywood movies. Faltermeyer’s sound, even thirty years down the line, remains immediately recognizable, with the Japanese Yamaha DX7 keyboard he often used for his lead melodies, and the Moog modular synthesizer he used to add bass. Yes, the sound has dated somewhat, and those who did not grow up during the era often find the sound clichéd and cheesy by today’s standards, but this music is a reflection of the taste and sound of a specific period in time, and even now I still get a nostalgic thrill from it.
The original mainstream Top Gun soundtrack album contained just one track of Faltermeyer’s score, the “Top Gun Anthem”, which combined Faltermeyer’s keyboard with a throbbing electric guitar performed by Billy Idol’s guitarist Steve Stevens, who got the gig because he just happened to be working on Idol’s album ‘Whiplash Smile’ in the studio next door. From the echoing drums and synthesized tubular bells that open the piece, to the masculine growl of Stevens’s guitar, and the melodic sweep of Faltermeyer’s piano keyboard, everything about the “Top Gun Anthem” is designed to evoke the hyper-enhanced bravado and swagger of the main characters. Furthermore, Faltermeyer was not shy about writing a memorable melody, and the Top Gun Anthem is one of his best.
The special edition soundtrack released in 1999 included a second score cue, “Memories,” the love theme for Maverick and Charlotte. A more dream-like, hypnotic piece, this cue sees Faltermeyer creating an ambient soundscape with layers of electronic washes, and then overlaying it with a slow, gentle sampled string melody, like a cross between a guitar and a harp. However, the rest of Faltermeyer’s score has never been released commercially, although a 40-minute promo of the score he submitted for consideration for the 1986 Academy Awards does exist on the secondary market. In addition to restatements of the “Top Gun Anthem” and “Memories,” the promo contains several of the score’s action cues for the dogfighting scenes, as well as some moments of suspense and drama, romance and sorrow.
Cues like “Dogfight,” “MIG 28s,” and “Flat Spin,” bubble to relentless synth rhythms, percussive hits from sampled drum kits and cymbals, flashy wows to punctuate the tension, and occasional statements of the Anthem melody. Elsewhere, “Negative Pushover/Cougar’s Landing” is darker, and more unyielding, with throbbing electronic pulses, shrill sound effects, and a more urgent tone to capture one of the film’s more dramatic moments of mid-air peril. A less aggressive version of the anthem appears in both the “Opening” and in “New Mission,” sans guitar, concentrating more on the pulses and chimes that play underneath the melody. There are also a couple of intimate synth/guitar variations on the love theme in “Still Awake/Can’t Sleep” and “Who’s Side Are You On?/Never Again,” as well as a moment of remembrance following the tragedy of “Goose’s Death/Goodbye Goose,” where Faltermeyer adds a synth woodwind texture to the mix.
Harold Faltermeyer left a real legacy on the world of film music through scores like Top Gun. In many ways, he created the prototype for the sound that Hans Zimmer picked up and ran with through later scores like Days of Thunder, True Romance, Crimson Tide, and others, all of which involved Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer or Tony Scott in some way. You could almost say that, without the Faltermeyer sound to emulate, there would be no Hans Zimmer sound today, and this is what collectors should take away from this, regardless of your feelings about the music itself. In terms of the actual quality of the score, it’s not groundbreaking, and it has not aged well in comparison to other scores from the period. But, as a snapshot of the way movies looked and felt and sounded in the summer of 1986, Top Gun is an important landmark, whose influence is still being felt in the Hollywood blockbusters of today. Along with “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop, this is Faltermeyer’s lasting contribution to cinema, and I’m not ashamed to admit I enjoy it immensely.
Buy the Top Gun soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
- Danger Zone (written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock, performed by Kenny Loggins) (3:36)
- Mighty Wings (written by Harold Faltermeyer and Mark Spiro, performed by Cheap Trick) (3:51)
- Playing with the Boys (written by Kenny Loggins, Ina Wolf, and Peter Wolf, performed by Kenny Loggins) (3:59)
- Lead Me On (written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock, performed by Teena Marie) (3:47)
- Take My Breath Away (written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock, performed by Berlin) (4:11)
- Hot Summer Nights (written by Michael Jay, Alan Roy Scott, and Roy Freeland, performed by Miami Sound Machine) (3:38)
- Heaven in Your Eyes (written by John Dexter, Paul Dean, Mike Reno, and Mae Moore, performed by Loverboy) (4:04)
- Through the Fire (written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock, performed by Larry Greene) (3:46)
- Destination Unknown (written by Franne Golde, Jake Hooker, and Paul Fox, performed by Marietta) (3:48)
- Top Gun Anthem (4:12)
- Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay (written by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper, performed by Otis Redding) (2:42) — 1999 Special Edition bonus track
- Memories (2:57) — 1999 Special Edition bonus track
- Great Balls of Fire (written by Jack Hammer and Otis Blackwell, performed by Jerry Lee Lewis) (1:57) — 1999 Special Edition bonus track
- You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Phil Spector, performed by The Righteous Brothers) (3:44) — 1999 Special Edition bonus track
- Playing with the Boys (12” Version) (written by Kenny Loggins, Ina Wolf, and Peter Wolf, performed Kenny Loggins) (6:41) — 1999 Special Edition bonus track
- SCORE PROMO
- Top Gun Anthem – Film Version (3:41)
- Opening (2:39)
- Dog Fight (2:38)
- MIG 28s (1:42)
- Negative Pushover/Cougar’s Landing (3:22)
- Still Awake/Can’t Sleep (2:05)
- Memories (2:57)
- Take My Breath Away [Instrumental] (written by Giorgio Moroder) (1:30)
- Who’s Side Are You On?/Never Again (3:32)
- Flat Spin (4:26)
- Goose’s Death/Goodbye Goose (1:50)
- New Mission (2:28)
- Top Gun Anthem (4:12)
Running Time: 56 minutes 26 seconds – soundtrack
Running Time: 37 minutes 03 seconds – score
Columbia/Legacy 498207-2 (1986/1999) – special edition soundtrack album
Promo (1986) – score
Music composed and performed by Harold Faltermeyer. Featured musical soloist Steve Stevens. Recorded and mixed by Harold Faltermeyer and Dave Whitman. Edited by Bob Badami. Score produced by Harold Faltermeyer. Album produced by Al Quaglieri.