Some of the signature action films of Tony Scott, who authorities said died Sunday after leaping from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, had an unbilled but unforgettable character: music.
Scott blockbusters such as "Top Gun" and "Beverly Hills Cop II" relied on pop, and the bass notes of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," which ascend until they suddenly don't, are as much of the former as is Tom Cruise's character Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. In one sense, the use of music in these works is simply representative of another era in filmmaking, one in which key cinematic moments were scored by pop artists rather than anonymously large orchestras.
The promotional benefit was hard to ignore, especially on MTV in the '80s, where videos such as the Scott-directed "Danger Zone" served as trailers for the films. Detractors could argue that scoring a film with pop music risks dating what's on the screen, but when it works, as it does in Scott's big '80s films, it forever fastens a relationship between character and audience.
After all, life's big moments, whether tragic or celebratory, are more likely to be accompanied by, say, the Righteous Brothers on a lonely dive bar jukebox than a Harry Gregson-Williams string section. The closing moment of "Top Gun," when Cruise's character hears "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " in a nearly empty saloon, is case in point. Every broken heart has a soundtrack, and in that moment the sound of Bill Medley's deep, burrowing baritone is working to drill down the walls of even the most hardened romantics.
Scott took his music seriously. Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" may be used most often as a punch line today, and the video Scott directed, with Loggins kicking around a bed in the early morning hours, can now be viewed as camp. Yet don't hold time against it. "Top Gun" was a film that celebrated mid-'80s military technology; why shouldn't it also celebrate mid-'80s rock 'n' roll, one of the dominant sounds of the period?
Granted, musical tastes are easy to quibble with. "Beverly Hills Cop II" has Bob Seger's Oscar-nominated "Shakedown" as well as George Michaels' goofy "I Want Your Sex," and the songs here match the sillier nature of the film. Scott, however, stuck by Michael, even directing the blue-hued video for the artist's "One More Try."
Scott's last film to bear his title as director, "Unstoppable," could be riveting in its tensely precise action. Yet even as filmmaking trends shifted, and Scott began turning to notable composers such as Gregson-Williams rather than the pop songbook, the director never fully turned his back on pop music.
His "The Taking of Pelham 123" remake in 2009 immediately took viewers to New York courtesy of Jay-Z's "99 Problems," and 1993's "True Romance" encouraged booming composer Hans Zimmer to indulge his more sedate, electronic tendencies. The film also dug deep for the Charles & Eddie soulful showstopper "Wounded Bird."
A smattering of directors today share Scott's love of pop and film. Quentin Tarantino, who wrote "True Romance," comes to mind, as do Brits Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "Slumdog Millionaire") and Edgar Wright ("Hot Fuzz," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World").
Yet "Top Gun," though released in 1986, still feels like one of the last of its kind in its marriage of action, drama and pop. "Take My Breath Away," for all its corny use in a love-scene montage, not only managed to become a go-to prom theme anthem but also won an Academy Award for best original song.
Scott's film "Beverly Hills Cop II" would return to the Oscar song category the following year, but by 1989, the category, with few exceptions, had become the province of musicals, Disney animation epics and Oscar-baiting dramas. The most recent Academy Awards more or less ignored the art, recognizing just two songs in the field, "Man or Muppet" and "Real in Rio."
Yes, the cooly meloncholic vocals of Terri Nunn and the synth-pop of Berlin are tied to the mid-'80s. But so, unfortunately, is the idea that a film could be carried by something as simple as a slow dance.