Danger Zone

  1. In fact, for the first four and a half minutes of the movie, a sequence aboard a carrier of takeoffs and landings, technology is front and center. Huge needlenosed planes are attended by featureless androids in helmets, ear and eye protection, busy at their tasks, as the “Anthem” coalesces in a synthesized texture (0:00–2:44); no speech intrudes but for a few indecipherable bursts over a P.A. “Danger Zone” (2:44–4:14) cuts in at the first launch, bringing the first intelligible voices in the production, the nondiegetic lead and backup singers’ (both performed here by Kenny Loggins).19 The only glimpse of human faces in the entire montage—four bareheaded landing signals officers—flashes by in a medium-close shot lasting about a second. The first diegetic dialog enters only over the fade of the cue.

  2. By the next “Danger Zone” cue (15:02–16:44), the diegesis has been anchored to its human protagonists. In Stinger’s quarters aboard the carrier, just after he breaks the news to Maverick and Goose, “You two characters are going to Top Gun,” the introductory beat sneaks in, enacting their adrenaline rush—the elevated pulse—in response to the fabled name. The cue carries through the remainder of the scene, through Mav’s motorcycle ride to Fightertown outside San Diego, and into the darkened classroom-as-movie-theater with cadets sprawling one next to another during Jester’s presentation.

  3. Example 1 transcribes and annotates an excerpt from the cue to show how closely signal moments in the diegesis are coordinated with critical musical moments, that is, how closely the musical personas—here, the male singers, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, drummer of a rock band—identify with the dramatic action.20 The abrupt cut from the Indian Ocean to the Southern California desert, for instance, is kicked off by the drummer and bassist on the second eighth in m. 28. In m. 35, a jet touches down as the lead singer descends through his phrase to land on the tonic. On the downbeat of m. 40, the hole left by the singer is filled by Maverick’s exuberant air punch. Cut to Mav and an ascending jet together on the downbeat of m. 45. The featured musical persona in the band, the lead singer delivers six phrases in three pairs. The first pair is a verse of phrases V1 and V2, marked on the example; the last two pairs are the extended chorus, phrases C1, C2, C3, and C4.

  4. V1: The lead singer moves essentially from to his goal . Instrumental support is light, the tonic E-flat-minor harmony static. With its quick repeated notes and ostinati, the spare texture vibrates with contained energy.

    V2: In a variant of V1, the singer touches , extending his range upwards, then filling in his descent to , “coming in for a landing.”

    C1: The throttle (literally!) is opened wide; loud, with the backup singer, the effect is that of a full band uncorked. The harmonic vocabulary increases—D-flat major and E-flat minor—and a harmonic rhythm emerges; now from , the lead singer comes in for another landing.

    C2: This is a variant of C1 with a pickup and a tail.

    C3: A harmonic progression takes shape—C-flat major to A-flat minor (to D-flat major to E-flat minor, concluded in the following phrase)—and the lead singer struggles to free himself from his gravitational bond to the tonic degree. His willful leap up to the dominant in the m. 46 doesn’t have quite enough energy to stay airborne, but in the next phrase,

    C4: Success! The lead singer, in other words, is taking off, much like the jet in the scene, and Maverick’s excitement as well. At the end of the phrase, on the climactic cry “the Danger Zone,” he is soaring into the upper reaches of his range, cruising on the dominant at an altitude of a perfect fifth—and thus he recedes into the distance beyond the acoustic horizon. Below, the excitement of the climax reverberates in the bass ostinato, the static tonic harmony echoing in an instrumental vamp. A musical equivalent of a freeze frame, the ostinato/vamp extends the climax indefinitely.

  5. Sequences such as this bring David Denby’s description of the movie to mind: “a tumescent hymn to the sexiness of flying” (102). Elaborating the phallic basis for the symbolism of flying, Freud proposed in 1915–16 that “the remarkable characteristic of the male organ which enables it to rise up in defiance of the laws of gravity, one of the phenomena of erection, leads to its being represented symbolically by balloons, flying-machines and most recently by Zeppelin airships. [Had Freud been writing twenty years ago, he could have included F-14s and MiGs.] But dreams can symbolize erection in another, far more expressive manner. They can treat the sexual organ as the essence of the dreamer’s whole person and make him himself fly.… Dreams of flying, so familiar and often so delightful, have to be interpreted as dreams of general sexual excitement, as erection-dreams” (155). For the male dreamer, that is, images of flying are prompted by the “anti-gravity” responses of his sexually aroused body. In “Danger Zone,” the male lead singer—disembodied, so that his voice becomes for us his body—ultimately defies the gravity of the tonic degree (and the limitations of his own range) to “fly” on that sustained dominant. To borrow Wolfman’s language at 16:39, which he anticipates, the lead singer seems to be saying, in musical terms, “This gives me a hardon.” Arousal, of course, carries a powerful narcissistic charge here. Precisely on the lead singer’s climactic downbeat in m. 51, a missile blows up a jet on a monitor in the classroom. It is clear on which side of the encounter the singer imagines himself. Triumph, if this music is any indication, opens into a fantasy of perpetual narcissistic pleasure, an endless static condition of ego inflation, likewise associated—recall Freud’s balloons and Zeppelins—with flying.

  6. Generic features of the music also help to create the narcissistic moment, and to eroticize the high technology at the pilots’ command as well. Disembodied as the musical personas are, as members of a mid-80s hard rock band they are all distinctly male, like the diegetic characters. Their music accordingly calls to mind, in concert performances, group displays of male eroticism before huge crowds who revel in the narcissistic spectacle they help to create. Mark Simpson’s description of heavy metal applies as well to “Danger Zone”: “The music itself, with its simple four-bar phrases and its crude repetitive chords, effects a solid, monumental phallicism, the most important feature of which is its volume, i.e. its size and power.” At the heart of the erotic spectacle works the technological magic that amplifies the human acoustics into superhuman proportions. Onscreen, the same high-tech magic extends the pilots’ human bodies into the flatwinged behemoths that thrust and soar, adored by the camera, “lock” onto others, and fire their missiles.21 Simpson argues further that the musical performance images engage a system of codes that allow boys and young men to “worship the phallus in a fashion that preserves its and their own desired/prized virility” (193).
    They can desire other males, that is—for the rock stars Simpson has in mind, substitute also the fetishized, larger-than-life Navy pilots onscreen, or the actors who play them—eagerly submit to their overpowering performances, and still escape queerness.22 These codes unqueer not only the music here, but also the scenes it underscores in general, and in particular, moments such as the guitarist’s frisson (16:30) over the vamp in reaction to the first view of Iceman’s face, an extreme closeup. And they unqueer both Wolfman’s arousal and the response of his buddy/driver Hollywood, gazing up languidly at him in the darkened room: “Don’t tease me” (16:43). The cue cuts out directly afterward when the blinds are opened and daylight intrudes to transform the shared erotic moment.

    Mav and Ice

  7. More broadly, Simpson’s codes unqueer the Maverick-Iceman romance, shaped as it is by fully four nondiegetic rock numbers over the course of the film, three of which feature male singers. A third “Danger Zone” cue (1:03:51–1:05:15) underscores a training exercise, “Hop 31.” Here, the song actually carries the pilots into the air. The lead singer takes off briskly, eliding C2 and C3 from Example 1 to combine C1 and C4 into a chorus.23 Two beats before the climax of the cue, the camera cuts to Iceman. Precisely on the climactic downbeat (“DANGer Zone!”), he throws a cool sidelong leer at Maverick. Precisely on the next downbeat falls the cut to Maverick himself, grinning back. Banter follows over the instrumental vamp, eyelines matched; and eight measures later, the guitarist’s frisson—in the first pass it introduced Iceman, marking the beginning of their romance—marks the end of the exchange: Ice breaks the contact, dismissing Maverick. (I’ll return below to this cue, which actually begins during the previous scene.)

  8. The other 80s rock number in the movie before the end credits fronted by a male singer—also Loggins—“Playin’ with the Boys” (40:51–42:28), underscores a volleyball game pitting Mav and Goose against Ice and Slider. Although (or because?) Charlie has made a point of asking Maverick to be on time to dinner at her place, the boys take priority, and he stays to compete until he is hours late. The game suspends the advance of the diegesis for a minute and a half; as something of a stand-alone montage, this sequence is essentially a discrete dance number interpolated into the action.24 It is also among those scenes that fetishize male flesh most blatantly. All players but Goose are shirtless (as the married dad, Goose is past desirability, thus also his funny shorts—and for that matter, his mustache, the only one on a cadet, and of course, his name); shot close from below against the blue sky, the young men loom Olympian. Note that visual continuity takes a back seat to fetishization: despite the sweat and all the dives into the sand, barely a grain besmirches the glistening figures. Almost all the spectators are male.

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19. In my reading, Loggins is voicing the nondiegetic roles of the lead and backup singers here, just as Cruise plays the diegetic role of Maverick, say, or McGillis that of Charlie.

20. While some of these “instrumental” sounds and those identified below may very well have been synthesized, they read as “traditionally” produced by people playing familiar instruments.

21. “This bogey’s all over me,” snarls Cougar during the first dogfight [6:55]; during the last, Iceman cries, “I’m hit, I’m hit!” [96:52]; their first person refers to their planes.

22. Simpson continues: “The ground-shaking, pummeling, gut-wrenching sound of heavy metal is the sound of boys enjoying the barely sublimated fantasy of being on the receiving end of the stupendously virile organ they worship” (193). Not all the volume in the movie is music, but just the same, reviewers point out the extraordinary volume of the sound track. For Michael Buckley, “the decibel level is shattering. Top Gun ranks as the noisiest picture of the year.” Reed warns moviegoers to “bring earplugs“ in order to “survive the noise.”

23. In this “Danger Zone” cue, “takeoff” is perhaps more precipitous than in Example 1: the second phrase of the verse is a straight reprise, not a variant, of the first.

24. Some three dozen serves, returns, or other gestures mark beats. The effect is often comic, not to say cheesy. At “the clock keeps ticking, when someone’s on your mind,” for instance, Goose, Slider, and Maverick keep musical time, winding up and serving in succession on the downbeat of m. 18, the strong third beat, and the downbeat of 19. Ice returns to mark the downbeat of 20. The sequence is perhaps the most overt incarnation of a generic principle that Harvey O’Brien tracks through the movie. He shows that Top Gun, like some other films of the 80s, assimilates conventions of the classic musical: the song and dance numbers of the latter, manifestations of emotional “excess,” are “sublimated” in the former into choreographed set pieces (“Fly Me”). He argues moreover that “the ‘gay’ subtext” in Top Gun is “further coding of emotional excess” (“Top Gun”).


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