As we prepare for the long-awaited release of Top Gun: Maverick, this week brought what used to be a fairly standard part of the promotional cycle: the unveiling of the big soundtrack single. On Monday, we got to hear “Hold My Hand,” from Lady Gaga, who described the high-octane ballad in epic fashion: “When I wrote this song for Top Gun: Maverick, I didn’t even realize the multiple layers it spanned across the film’s heart, my own psyche and the nature of the world we’ve been living in. I’ve been working on it for years, perfecting it, trying to make it ours. I wanted to make music into a song where we share our deep need to both be understood and try to understand each other — a longing to be close when we feel so far away and an ability to celebrate life’s heroes.”
That’s a lot to ask of 225 seconds of music, but damn if “Hold My Hand” almost gets there. The song, whose official music video drops today, is meant to be an emotional and sonic opus, utterly ridiculous and yet very, very serious. In other words, it’s the perfect accompaniment to Top Gun: Maverick, which according to its advance buzz sounds like it’s going to be as overblown as the original back in 1986 — the same year as Lady Gaga was born, by the way. Indeed, someone who knows a thing or two about big-screen spectacle, Top Gun: Maverick star Tom Cruise, has been raving about “Hold My Hand,” recently declaring, “It just opened those doors to the emotional core of the film that we had. In that moment, things just came together in such a beautiful way. Her song that she’d written just fell right in and became, really, the underlying score and the heartbeat of our film.”
Such overstatement is par for the course with a major tentpole, but you’ll have to forgive me if I confess that, in this specific case, it’s also undeniably happy-making. In “Hold My Hand,” Lady Gaga isn’t so much trying to summon the spirit of Top Gun and its sequel as she’s tapping into what was so preposterously grandiose about the original’s hit soundtrack. Certified nine-times platinum, generating three huge hits, the Top Gun soundtrack came from an era in which blockbuster films produced equally blockbuster albums. Every one of its 10 tracks are absolute hyperbolic nonsense. If it wasn’t so shameless, it wouldn’t be so great.
The Top Gun soundtrack is best known for two songs — the adrenalized “Danger Zone” and the swooningly romantic “Take My Breath Away” — which represent the yin/yang of the film’s (and the album’s) thematic concerns. As the hotshot fighter pilot Maverick, Cruise is all cocky machismo, engaging in an aerial dick-measuring competition when he’s not getting in touch with his sensitive side by seducing Charlie (Kelly McGillis), his tough-but-fair instructor. Maverick does everything with feverish intensity — the movie’s love scenes are like a glossy music video mixed with a perfume ad — and the soundtrack follows his cue, rocking out and pouring its heart out with equally unbridled passion.
Opening in 1986, the film was part of a cycle of flashy, sensation-driven movies from that decade that were turning motion pictures into big, stupid carnival rides. Director Tony Scott, Ridley’s younger brother, had come out of commercials, and the flight sequences looked like video games. This was also a period when hit films often were accompanied by hit singles, which frequently became their year’s song of the summer. Flashdance, Footloose, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future: All of these movies (and plenty others) sold a ton of tickets and also moved a lot of albums, essentially getting their young audience to spend their money twice on these cultural phenomena.
So when Top Gun arrived, it wasn’t a surprise that the film, the year’s highest-grossing, would also have a collection of songs made specifically for the movie. Outside of an Encanto or A Star Is Born, it’s rare in modern times for a film soundtrack to feature so many originals. More likely, you have a situation similar to that of Pharrell Williams, who crafted the mega-successful “Happy” for Despicable Me 2 — essentially, a one-off that appears somewhere in the film or during the end credits. Nowadays, a lot of those songs are disposable — sure, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was amazing, but who remembers his “Venom” from Venom? — but the chief architects of the Top Gun soundtrack had a knack for coming up with gargantuanly cheesy tunes that were a fitting complement to the film’s adolescent fantasies of good and evil.
One of those architects was composer Harold Faltermeyer, whose keyboard-driven scores powered 1980s classics like Beverly Hills Cop. His guitar-hero instrumental “Top Gun Anthem” had the slickness of a Navy recruiting ad, which in some senses it sorta was. Faltermeyer wasn’t shy about his desire to always go for the jugular. “When I start composing, I tend to go wild with my fantasies and come up with all sorts of crazy shit,” said Faltermeyer, who also worked on the score for Top Gun: Maverick. “There’s no limit in musical styles whatsoever. I have found in most instances that initially exaggerating the composition, then bringing it back to ‘normal,’ creates the desired emotion. However, what sometimes happens through the ‘bring back to normal’ process — there is a remainder of some ‘spikes’ which didn’t join in.” For Faltermeyer, anything worth doing was worth overdoing.
He was joined by Giorgio Moroder, the legendary electronic-music pioneer, who’d already won two Oscars, including Best Original Song for “Flashdance… What a Feeling.” Moroder wrote four songs for the soundtrack, most famously coming up with the music for both “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away,” which were recorded, respectively, by Kenny Loggins and Berlin. The lyrics happened by accident. “My Ferrari was parked behind the studio, with brake trouble,” Moroder recalled in 2020. “One day a guy, Tom Whitlock, came by and said he was a mechanic and could fix it. Later he said, ‘Oh and, by the way, I’m also a lyricist. If you ever need some words…’ I was never good at lyrics, so I gave him my demos. He wrote words for ‘Danger Zone’ and ‘Take My Breath Away,’ among others, and the imagery was perfect.” Moroder, alongside Whitlock, won his third Oscar for “Take My Breath Away.”
Look at the soundtrack’s tracklist and you’ll find an unholy sampling of new wave groups, easy-listening staples and forgotten 1970s rockers. Loggins was probably the biggest name outside of Loverboy, whose “Heaven in Your Eyes” was the sort of forehead-vein-bursting power ballad that was popular at the time, the go-to move for mediocre rock bands trying to show their lady how much they loved them. There are two types of tunes on the Top Gun soundtrack — unmemorable schlocky songs and incredibly indelible schlocky songs — and both feature full-throttled lyrics about “livin’ on the edge” and “bodies working overtime” and taking it “right into the danger zone.”
Like in musicals, Top Gun’s lyrics encapsulate a mindset, expressing the characters’ wants and desires through obvious, unsophisticated language. Part of the reason the film’s infamous volleyball scene is so homoerotic is that Loggins’ “Playing With the Boys” kicks into overdrive with “After chasing sunsets / One of life’s simple joys / Is playing with the boys.”
The songs are so sincere in their emotional expressiveness that, as with the movie, you don’t know if it’s actually meant to be somewhat subversive. Seriously, did no one realize how funny these over-the-top sentiments sounded? How hysterically grandiose the musical arrangements were? Nuance be damned, the Top Gun soundtrack is a salute to bros being bros, but it’s also a tribute to sheer tackiness — the notion that the person who belts their song out the most emphatically wins. For a film starring a man who’s made it his mission to be unreasonably dialed-up at all times, Top Gun couldn’t have had a better soundtrack. As Larry Greene sings in “Through the Fire,” over blandly heavy guitars and generically pounding drums, “I will take it to the wire now / Until every race is run / I’ll go straight into the fire now / Until every day is done.” This song probably makes sense to no one but Tom Cruise.
Before workout playlists were invented, the Top Gun soundtrack was there to assist your high-impact exercises and also your gentle cool-downs. The album sounds like cocaine and sports cars and Ray-Bans. It’s ideal for hang-gliding, bungee-jumping or piloting a Tomcat into battle. It feels like a 12-year-old’s idea of what’s cool, which is stuff that’s loud and rad. If you listen to the album for too long, you’ll probably have to take a nap. It ought to be insufferable, so why do I have a big grin on my face?
Clearly, the appeal of the album and the movie was always similar: Both were too much of a good thing, a celebration of male id that never once smirked at how silly it was. Top Gun absolutely believed in the shit it was selling, and a lot of people bought it. In her 21st-century way, Lady Gaga tries to do something similar with “Hold My Hand,” reaching for the stratosphere, delivering a barrage of sonic explosions meant to rock the rafters. After all, nothing associated with this franchise is done in half measures. My only criticism of her song is that it’s not nearly ridiculous enough. Amidst all the emotional pyrotechnics, there’s a hint of classiness buried in the mix. And when did restraint have anything to do with Top Gun?