How Top Gun changed Hollywood

Movies Blog

Maverick flipping a MiG pilot the bird. 'Take My Breath Away'. Those Ray Bans.

'Top Gun' is an iconic movie and the most enduring film by the late Tony Scott - who tragically threw himself of an LA bridge this week.

[Related story: Scott prepping Top Gun 2 days before death]
[Related gallery: Tony Scott's career in pictures]

The critics at the time hated it, some called it proof that Hollywood could polish a turd, but that didn't stop it becoming the highest-grossing film of 1986 and helping define the decade. Not only that, but for better or worse its influence is still felt at cinemas today; virtually all modern 'tentpole' blockbusters have a bit of 'Top Gun' in their DNA. But why?

'High Concept'

Tony Scott directed 'Top Gun', but the brains behind it were the ultra-successful production team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (who died of a heart attack in 1996). They were pioneers of the 'high concept' project — such as 'Beverley Hills Cop', 'Flashdance' and most successfully 'Top Gun' — that would break box office records in the 80s.

These films used star power, extended music segments, simplistic stories and — most importantly — a premise that could be summarised in a sentence and understood by an idiot.

'Top Gun' began life when Jerry Bruckheimer saw a magazine article about fighter pilots by Ehud Yonay in the May 1983 issue of 'California' magazine. He excitedly bought the rights despite having no idea what the story was.

What attracted him was the stunning aerial photography by ex-pilot Commander Charles "Heater" Heatley. Images like this, along with Tom Cruise's megawatt smile, would sell the movie.

Think of the 'Jurassic Park' gates, the 'Batman' logo, 'Transformers' or 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and the way they were marketed, these all owe a debt to 'Top Gun'.

The music

It's almost impossible to think of 'Top Gun' without Berlin's cheesy epic 'Take My Breath Away' accompanying the memories — probably playing to images of Cruise riding a motor bike with Kelly McGillis thrown in. That's no accident.

Bruckheimer and Simpson changed the way music sold films — and films sold music. A dry run for the methods used in 'Top Gun' was 'Flashdance', the unlikely hit about a girl who works in a steel mill by day, but as a dancer at night. It made huge hits of 'Flashdance… What a feeling' by Irene Cara and 'Maniac' by Michael Sembello.

The producers replicated the formula for 'Beverly Hills Cop' and — most successfully — 'Top Gun'. The soundtrack, which also included the hit 'Danger Zone' by Kenny Loggins, became one of the most popular of all time and reminded Hollywood how much cash tie-in records could make, especially following the launch of MTV.

Tony Scott directed the hell out the musical sequences — they were like mini-music videos — and owed a debt to his background as in advertising. Speaking of which…

[Related story: Tony Scott death 'caught on camera]
[Related story: Stars lead tribute to Scott]


'Top Gun', said some critics, was one long advert… and they had a point. Sales of Ray Bans went up by 40% after the movie and it also boosted US Air Force and Navy applications. The Navy even started posting recruitment booths outside screenings of 'Top Gun' to snare newly inspired cinemagoers.

Scott started out in commercials and it was this advert for the Saab 900 Turbo (which implied that stepping into a Swedish car was like entering a fighter jet) that landed him the 'Top Gun' gig.

He brought techniques from the ad world like flash cut editing and stylised lighting with him and these perfectly fit the film, shared similarities with the burgeoning music video industry and helped define the look of a modern blockbuster.

Nowadays many of the directors who dominate our screens - Michael Bay, Peter Berg, David Fincher and Zack Snyder - started out making music videos and ads, rather than small independent films that provided the grounding for the previous generation. They all owe a debt to Tony Scott's work on 'Top Gun'.

Home video

By 1986 VHS had won the home video war after brutal struggle with rival format Betamax, but studios hadn't seen the potential cassettes had as an opportunity to make money. Instead they were worried home video sales would cannibalise box office receipts. The success of 'Top Gun' on home video eased these doubts.

Thanks in part to a ground-breaking partnership with Pepsi that gave punters $5 off the video if they bought a bottle of cola, 'Top Gun' became the best selling VHS ever (until 'Home Alone' came along) and shifted 2.9 million units. Whopping.

The Cruiser

Tom Cruise almost turned down 'Top Gun', and had to be paid a million bucks by Bruckheimer/Simpson to sign on.

Scott got his money's worth with numerous close-ups of Cruise's dazzling smile… and his torso. Locker room scenes that had no equivalent in real life were written into the script. "I have just paid a million dollars for that kid," Don Simpson said, "and I need to see some flesh."

Scott obliged and, love him or loathe him, Tom Cruise became the biggest movie star of the next 25 years, all thanks to 'Top Gun'.