Seventeen years after it was first released, “My Heart Will Go On” remains one of the biggest theme songs in movie history. But the romantic ballad from Titanic nearly slammed into an iceberg of its own en route to the top of the pop charts.
Oscar-winning composer James Horner, who died Monday in a plane crash in California at the age of 61, famously composed the song in secret, after director James Cameron initially balked at the idea of including a pop tune in his maritime blockbuster.
“[James] did not want it to be a Hollywood movie that had violins soaring away around it and a song pasted in at the end,” Horner told Empire magazine earlier this year.
“But when you see the last scene of the movie, my job is to keep the audience in their seats and not let them off the hook,” he added. “It’s my personal belief I should never let anyone put their coats on. They have to be as in it as they can be. As I started writing this eight-minute sequence, I was saying, ‘How am I going to do this? Just another orchestra reprise?’ It had to be very intimate, very emotional.”
In what has since become a heralded snippet of cinema lore, Horner – working with lyricist Will Jennings – decided to take the film’s most memorable musical strain and commit words to it. The song ultimately came together in a vivid burst of creativity in the spring of 1997, just as Horner was wrapping up the orchestral tapestry that would eventually become the film’s soundtrack.
Finding a voice for the melody proved to be a no-brainer for Horner. “For me, the only person that could do it was Céline [Dion],” he once told Billboard.
Indeed, the songbird, who was coming off a string of mid-’90s hits, was instantly hooked by the song – so hooked, in fact, that she agreed to secretly record a demo with Horner so they could make a strong case to Cameron to include it in the movie.
The tune was recorded in a single, emotional take that left everyone in tears.
“She started singing the song and it was just electrifying,” Horner told Billboard of the recording session, which was held in New York five weeks after they first met. “By the end of it, we were all emotionally shook up. She started crying while singing it two-thirds of the way through the song, and then everybody in the room was crying. She was singing it like her life depended on it.”
Their efforts paid off: Horner eventually presented Cameron with their clandestine project – a passionate bid on behalf of a simple, catchy melody that would eventually strike a rousing chord with audiences.
“I proceeded secretly with Céline until the time when Jim felt comfortable enough with his own film,” Horner told Empire magazine. “The day finally came when I played it for him. He played it for his family, who loved it, but he was still not convinced. It took him another month and a half to be convinced. We took it to New York and previewed it and the audience was in tears and tatters at the end. That’s when he decided the song would be in the movie, when he realized it was a cinematic tool and it wasn’t a gimmick. He had to see it with an audience to believe that.”
To say that the tune found its sea legs would be an understatement: “My Heart Will Go On” exploded onto the pop-culture radar, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on Feb. 28, 1998, and propelling the Titanic album to a 16-week run at No. 1 – an unprecedented feat for a largely orchestral soundtrack album. The tune eventually won Best Original Song at the 1998 Oscars.
“When I was ready to sing the song, I had tears in my eyes, and I could feel my knees shaking because I was getting very emotional,” Celine Dion later told Cosmopolitan. “Singing the theme was a magic moment for me.”