Great Opening Sequences: Top Gun (1986)

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My tribute to the late Tony Scott and the first in my series of Great Opening Sequences, this was originally going to focus on the first ten minutes of The Hunger but that’ll come another time, because as great as it is, Scott’s debut film is, despite the style and the glossiness, somewhat unrepresentative of the director’s output in general. No, let’s move on to his next film, the enormous Top Gun, which for better or worse, fully established Scott’s approach to directing – slick, spectacular, exciting, visceral and crowd-pleasing. It was also very much the work of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer – their massively popular but critically derided style of reductionist characterisation, MTV-influenced aesthetics (and huge soundtrack success) and flashy, iconic pop-culture influence gave the FEEL of Top Gun huge impact and made the film a sensational success, even though normally fundamental things like the story are nothing-special. With Top Gun, it was all about the look, the sound, the volume, the surface, the Tom Cruise-effect and so on rather than anything of substance underneath, although I’m sure there are thousands out there who still cry when Anthony Edwards’ Goose gets killed. It definitely upset me when I was a child.

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So, it’s been said that in order to keep an audience in their seats you need the ultimate opening, and to get them talking about the film afterwards you need a killer ending. All that stuff in-between is apparently unimportant, so let’s not bother with that, and concentrate on Top Gun’s opening sequence, which establishes everything that makes the flashier end of eighties filmmaking so irresistible.

paramount logo - Grease (1978)

We get the Paramount logo, which, depending on which version of the film you get, might be the old-school fade to blue version (which is correct) or the slightly less old-school zoom-in version (which isn’t correct and has replaced the older version on some DVD releases). See pics above for details. And what’s that sound? A simple drum beat. So very simple. Then there’s THAT sound. The Top Gun sound. You know it. Everyone knows it. It’s like a synthetic bell. And it’s quietly, forebodingly like the Second Coming. It’s the sound that will turn people on to Top Gun or turn people off. Over this we get some extraordinarily economical storytelling as the following text appears:

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Great stuff. Don’t piss about, just tell us that this film is going to be about the best of the best of the best. And in effect, this film will be the best of the best of the best. The top one percent. Scott, Simpson and Bruckheimer wanted to throw us straight into the action. They succeeded. And notice the way the text colons its way into the title. All the while the synths, those lovely synths, which are as cold as machines yet warm as the slow hum of a sunrise creep further and further into your heart. Am I taking the piss about all of this? Yes and no. I love synthesisers, and we’ve thankfully moved on from that whole rockist way of thinking that because they’re not strictly ‘real’ instruments, then they don’t have the same kind of heart as some raw, jagged guitar solo or the blood, sweat and tears of a real band. Oh yeah, we do get a guitar solo in the more famous version of this theme, and it’s as cheesy as Stilton, nowhere near as good as this quieter, more reflective version, which still is pretty cheesy. But I can’t resist it. This music comes courtesy of Harold Faltermeyer, who had already done Beverly Hills Cop and would reach his peak on The Running Man. Faltermeyer is so quintessentially 1980s that his scores are unimaginable in any other decade, and his synth-heavy, massively entertaining scores (check out Tango and Cash) are always good value.

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After the title, we get an opening sequence that, in its way, is just as arty and stylish as that of The Hunger (and apparently made studio execs choke in fear that an aerial version of that commercial flop was in store). The use of slow-motion as fade in is really quite noticeable – usually Simpson/Bruckheimer films go right for the jugular, going for the rock song, the fast pace, the big bang….while this one takes its time. We get planes, these mighty, mighty planes, getting ready for take off, indecipherable radio communication speak, mysterious silhouettes guiding these planes on their way, the jet-thrust of air, the strangely phallic way the planes enter shot and those landing pads (or whatever they are) rise up, and what’s with that sky? That doesn’t look real. Yep, it’s the filters. The filters that make everything look so damned cool and stylish, the ones that Simpson, Bruckheimer, Scott and loads more would use again and again, and despite (actually, BECAUSE) that they don’t resemble real life at all, it’s easy to see why millions fell for it. It’s because it looks so unreal, strange, exciting….and that’s the movies. That’s escapism. And that’s why enlistment for the air force skyrocketed after this movie. So, is Top Gun nothing more than an advert for the United States Navy? Well, it didn’t hurt it, that’s for sure. What’s noticeable is the atmosphere of teamwork here, and the sense that everybody’s in on the game, and it’s this sense of working-class/blue-collar camaraderie that I think was a major draw in this opening sequence. Of course, that all goes out of the window once we start concentrating on Tom Cruise’s Maverick, but for this opening sequence, all that was missing was an actual navy logo and slogan in the bottom right of the screen.

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Still, we can’t spend forever dreaming and getting ready to take off, let’s DO THIS THING!!!! YEAHHH!! After the music reaches its minor crescendo, the engines kick off, the guy gives the all-clear and it’s GO time! And if the critics were uncomfortable about the prevalence of synths so far, they were going to choke on their popcorn (or the more respectable alternative) when ‘Danger Zone’ kicks in and all of a sudden we’re ROCKING with the LOGGINS! That’s right, Kenny Loggins, as much a vital part of the 1980’s soundtrack scene as Faltermeyer, does his absolute best to soft-rock ruin the high-impact of these take-off scenes but strangely ends up enhancing them, as the sheer volume of the engines obliterates any common sense and gets you going ‘America! Fuck Yeah!’.  Yeah, the volume. Jesus, these planes are the real stars of the show. They sound like god damned monsters. No wonder that we get the sense that these guys on the landing strip, despite not even getting to fly the planes and are only behind the scenes, fucking LOVE their jobs, even doing a little dance, or still acting shocked and spellbound by what they see even though they must be seeing this ALL THE TIME.

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It’s a high-altitude opening, and it’s almost a shame when the rest of the film doesn’t quite match its velocity, but that’s a great deal of what Simpson, Bruckheimer and Scott were about – sound and vision, not plot and dialogue, even though there is some classic dialogue to enjoy  later on. Scott would make far better films – The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide and the flawed but underrated Revenge, but this opening sequence is his most iconic moment.

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