When Tom Cruise reteamed with Jerry Bruckheimer 35 years after the release of Top Gun for a sequel, one of the first discussions had to be about the music. Harold Faltermeyer’s original anthem has become iconic, along with memorable tracks from Kenny Loggins and Berlin. Director Joseph Kosinski, and producers Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie ended up bringing in the big guns for Top Gun: Maverick – Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, and none other than Lady Gaga.
Harold Faltermeyer was also invited back, to help work on variations of his theme for a new movie, and a new audience. It’s unusual for a movie score to have four people involved, so Balfe ended up taking on a supervisory role as producer. Zimmer came up with new music for sequences such as Darkstar, the F-14 heist, and Penny’s return – all of which incorporated elements of Faltermeyer’s theme, as well as elements of Lady Gaga’s closing titles song Hold My Hand.
We met up with British composer Lorne Balfe – who has a host of action movie scores to his name, including Geostorm, The Hurricane Heist, Gemini Man, and 6 Underground. We discussed wielding so many different personalities into one cohesive score, and paying homage to the original.
The Digital Fix: Congratulations on the huge success of Top Gun: Maverick!
Lorne Balfe: It’s been amazing! It’s definitely been, well I think, unexpected. It wasn’t planned. When we finished it, all the cinemas were closed. I went to a test screening of it and I remember thinking; “everybody needs this. Everybody needs this experience.”
I can’t think of the last time a movie has covered all generations – there’s 21-year-olds talking about it and then there’s my mother, who’s 80, talking about it! It’s been very therapeutic for us all to get back into the cinema.
I’m sure you’re aware that here in the US the audiences are quite… enthusiastic. I saw it in IMAX and the audience were whooping, cheering and applauding.
It’s amazing, I’ve seen it twice in Britain and they should be quite a conservative crowd – but no, they were cheering. Not many sequels have had that, I worked on Bad Boys 3 (AKA Bad Boys For Life). I just didn’t know the fanbase was so big for it, so it’s been great.
And it’s got people back into the cinemas, people are going multiple times. They’re feeling comfortable going now, so they’re going to see Jurassic World etc Everybody’s back, I think it’s very encouraging and good, I hope.
As a huge fan of the original, the opening sequence of Maverick gave me goosebumps..
Yes – “talk to me Goose.” So, the music in the opening is the same as the original. How early was that decision made and was everyone agreed that that was how it should open?
There was no debate there. We changed the music a bit and made it more “now.” We could have used Harold’s [Faltermeyer] original track, but we changed some of the synths to make them a bit more modern. But we tried to replicate it as closely as possible.
Even the interruption, when it goes into Danger Zone – it’s totally nostalgic, and you get excited about it. So, that was always the plan, to have the audience be welcomed into it, where they feel comfortable and then it takes us on a new journey.
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Were there lots of discussions about how much of the music throughout the film would be a homage and how much would be new? How did you want to strike that balance?
That discussion went on for about three and a half years (laughs). There was no one, straight plan. We experimented with having the score be more electronic and more nostalgic to what the original was. But it didn’t work with the story, because the story is of today.
So, we ended up making it more of a hybrid score, where it’s electronic and orchestral. It was going to be a large orchestral sound, but then Covid happened. It put a stop to the concept of sitting in a big studio and recording an orchestra, it just didn’t exist.
I was recording Black Widow at Abbey Road, and we were the last session. After us, the following day, it shut down for about four or five months. Then we had second lockdowns and everything, so even the musicians had to work differently.
They all had to record at home, record in their bedrooms, and it was something that hadn’t been done before. So, that alone changed the sound and how we worked.
So, there’s Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, Lady Gaga and you – it seems like there’s four big personalities there. How did it come together and how did it work on a practical level – were you all involved with every track, how did it break down?
Everybody is semi-connected because I had worked for Hans for about 15 years. Hans knew Lady Gaga, Harold knew Hans when they both came to Los Angeles in the beginning. So, everybody kind of had a connection. Hans had worked with Jerry Bruckheimer for a long time, so had Harold.
I had worked with Tom (Cruise) and Chris McQuarrie on the last Mission (Fallout), and I’m working on the next two. Our studios were all next to each other in Santa Monica. But Covid broke everybody up, so we were all in different areas.
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But I think, when you watch the film, Lady Gaga’s song was the last missing DNA that we had. We always knew that Harold’s anthem was something that you smiled at when you watch the film and it’s become part of folklore. Just yesterday, I heard somebody who had it on their phone.
It’s truly iconic, so we always knew that had to be part of the story that was being told. Then, when Lady Gaga wrote that song, it was about; “how do we incorporate it into the film so it’s not just a needledrop?” It doesn’t just appear.
Tom regards it as a love letter to aviation, as well as love. And that’s how we started incorporating her song into the score, so it became the score and it wasn’t just a song. It was an emotion that you felt, throughout it you feel you’re hearing it, and then at the end you finally get it delivered.
You don’t normally get so many people (working on a score), but I think each one of us contributed something different to it. I think that’s why I ended up being the score producer on it, because there were a lot of us, and it had to connect. So, that was my role.
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Were you involved at all in the decision to use the One Republic song for the football on the beach scene?
I had nothing to do with that. That was all Tom Cruise and Randy Spendlove, who is the head of music at Paramount. He had a lot to do with reaching out to Lady Gaga and One Republic. It’s quite an intimidating thing to try to write a song for the sequel to Top Gun. But Ryan from One Republic was like Lady Gaga, helping working on the score also. So, it wasn’t just dropping pieces, everybody was working together.
For the closing titles, the anthem is used again, but it’s a variation on the theme. How did you build the track and decide on what the new elements would be?
It was trying to bring all the elements of the new score into the anthem. And also be respectful of it, not alienate the purists who love it too much. There’s different chord progressions that we took from the track Darkstar and melodic hooks from different cues.
We didn’t want to give it a remix for the sake of it, because there’s no reason for it. It was trying to make a new version that represented this film and the new musical themes that are part of it. And just embrace it with Harold’s iconic anthem.
I was reading yesterday that Southwest Airlines have been playing it for their take off. Everybody’s cheering now when they’re taking off.
Glen Powell tweeted that on his last flight the pilots were saying; “we gotta nail this landing – Hangman’s watching.”
I’m so happy for Glen. I worked with him a long, long time ago, we were doing short films together. The first time I saw (Maverick) on the big screen, I texted him and said; “you are a movie star.” He really is great on the screen. It’s difficult when you’ve got somebody like Tom Cruise, who is obviously a movie star. But I loved seeing Glen, because it’s definitely changed his career – he’s so great in that role.
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Was deciding when not to use music a challenge? For example, I don’t think the Iceman scene has any music. Was that deciding that it was emotional enough without overlaying more emotion from the score?
It all comes down to having amazing taste and that amazing taste usually comes from Eddie Hamilton, the editor. And Joe (Kosinski), the director, and Chris McQuarrie. I always remember working on Mission Impossible: Fallout and one of the best fight sequences I’ve ever seen is in Fallout, and I can’t take any credit because there’s no music in it.
It’s difficult to know when not to do it. There can only be one winner and it’s either going to be music or sound effects. And when they compete against each other, it’s not fair on the audience. It’s tiring on the ears. So I think choosing when to be there and when not is one of the hardest crafts, and you don’t need wall-to-wall music.
The second half of Top Gun: Maverick, there was probably double the amount of music written. It was about pulling out as much as possible and choosing your moments as to when it’s going to mean something to the audience.
A lot of those great choices were from a big team. When watching these scenes, you’ve got a big group of you there and you’ve got to have confidence, and not necessarily feel that you’ve got to throw the kitchen sink at it. I think you can see that when watching those movies, like Mission Impossible: Fallout and you can see the taste that they all have with filmmaking, and it definitely comes through in this movie.
You also did the score for Ambulance this year, Michael Bay is also back. It’s an exciting time for action cinema and the big-screen experience, as we’ve been saying.
I think that movie only has seven minutes of no-music in it. But it’s a cinematic experience. I saw that at the big Odeon in Leicester Square – just magnificent. Apart from The Rock, I think it’s Michael’s best film. Amazing action.
The reason Jerry Bruckheimer discovered him was because he did a milk campaign; “Got milk?” And if you look it up, you can see the beginning of the craft of a Bay movie. It’s like, the most boring concept of the subject-matter being milk, is made into the most amazing cinematic experience.
Ambulance I’d been working on for about two years. Michael is one of the reasons why I got into movies, because of The Rock. And Jerry Bruckheimer, and Hans Zimmer – those three were the reasons why I wanted to get into movies.
When I watched those films, that made me go; “gosh that’s what I want to get into.” So, I’m very proud of what Michael made with that movie. And it’s loud, boy it’s loud! Bayhem – it’s a new expression I’d never heard of until recently. Total Bayhem!