How Audiences Fell for James Horner's Hit Titanic Ballad 'My Heart Will Go On'

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Near, far, wherever you are, there’s a part of your brain that’s probably still playing “My Heart Will Go On” on an endless loop. Written by composer James Horner (who died in a plane crash on Monday), Celine Dion’s theme from Titanic was the most ubiquitous song of the late ‘90s, an emotional power ballad that perfectly captured the romantic yearning at the heart of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. And to think: It almost didn’t make it into the movie. In memory of Horner’s indelible film career, we took a look back on how “My Heart Will Go On” went from a rejected idea to the best-loved movie theme song of all time.

Horner was hired to write the score for Titanic after working with director Cameron on Aliens. He immediately connected with the director’s tragic, romantic vision; after seeing a rough cut of the film, “I went home and wrote five themes, and they are the same five themes that are in the movie. Nothing changed,” he told Empire Online earlier this year. However, he and Cameron differed on one key point: what should play over the closing credits. The director was adamantly opposed to including a theme song, or any song, as part of the score.

Related: Perfect Scores: James Horner’s Most Memorable Movie Music

“He 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. “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. 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.”

Watch the official video for the song:

Unable to convince Cameron, Horner decided to move ahead with his theme song in secret. He brought aboard lyricist Will Jennings (“Tears In Heaven,” “Up Where We Belong”), who wrote words that were inspired by a real-life acquaintance the same age as the movie’s fictional heroine Rose (played as a young woman by Kate Winslet). “I had met this very vibrant woman who was about 101 years old when I met her…. And she came into my mind. And I realized she could have been on the Titanic,” Jennings said in a 2006 interview with Songfacts. “So I wrote everything from the point of view of a person of a great age looking back so many years.”

Once the song was written, Horner approached Celine Dion to do the recording. He’d last worked with Dion when she was a virtual unknown, and recorded his song “Dreams to Dream” for 1991’s An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. (Her version doesn’t appear in the final film — producer Steven Spielberg opted to use Linda Ronstadt’s recording instead.) Horner played “My Heart Will Go On” for Dion in her in her hotel room at Caesars Palace, “and she really liked it and wanted to be involved,” he told CNN in 2012.

Dion recalls it differently. “I didn’t want to sing 'My Heart Will Go On,’” she said on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2013. “Thank God they didn’t listen to me. I didn’t really like the song at first. I wasn’t sure. I did another song for a movie before [‘Beauty and the Beast’], and it was very successful and I thought we were pushing our luck.” According to the 2005 authorized biography Celine Dion: For Keeps, it was Dion’s manager and husband René Angélil who insisted she record a demo. The singer began to warm to the song after hearing Horner describe the film’s love story, and she agreed to do one take (or two, according to Horner). Horner later added orchestrations, and that perfect demo was used as the vocal track for the hit single.

But first, Horner had to convince James Cameron, who still didn’t know the song existed. Horner told CNN that he carried the tape recording with him for four weeks, waiting for the right moment to pitch it. Finally, he played Dion’s demo for the director.

Watch Horner accept his ‘Titanic’ Oscars and thank Cameron for “being in good mood that day when I brought you the song:”

“I was kind of skeptical,” Cameron said in a 2012 interview. “And then she started to sing and I started to think, ‘Wow, this is really pretty good.’ And by about the second stanza, I was listening to the lyrics, and just the heights that she hit, the power in her voice, and I’m thinking, ‘This is great.’ So it ends. And I looked up at [Horner] and I said, ‘This could be as good as the song in The Bodyguard.’ Because that was my only reference point for a song that really broke out of a movie and really had that kind of power.”

Even so, it took some more persuasion — and several test screenings — before Cameron agreed to put “My Heart Will Go On” over the closing credits. Three weeks before the film was finished, he acquiesced.

The rest was history. “My Heart Will Go On” became one of the best-selling singles of all time, and was awarded an Oscar, four Grammys, and a Golden Globe. (Horner picked up a second Oscar for Titanic’s score.) Even after Titanic sailed out of theaters, the song dominated radio airwaves. So inescapable was it that a backlash was inevitable: For all its accolades, “My Heart Will Go On” ranked no. 7 on a Rolling Stone readers’ poll of The Worst Songs of the ‘90s.  

Even Titanic star Kate Winslet has admitted to suffering from Celine Dion fatigue. When asked by MTV News in 2012 how she feels when she hears “My Heart Will Go On,” the actress responded, “Like throwing up.” In response, Dion joked that she sympathizes with Winslet: “If I just count how many times I’ve sung it, maybe it’ll get me sick,” she said on Today. But, she added, “’My Heart Will Go On’ gave me the opportunity to be associated with a classic that will live forever.”

And with the 3D release of Titanic in 2012, “My Heart Will Go On” did begin to experience a wave of new appreciation. An article in The Atlantic by critic Carl Wilson argued that “My Heart Will Go On” would go down in history as a kind of folk classic. In Vulture, Amanda Dobbins defended the ballad, pointing out that it contains “one of the most glorious key changes in recorded music history.” The song has been covered by Blondie, Conchita Wurst, Miss Piggy, and thousands of American Idol hopefuls. It is one of James Horner’s many lasting contributions to pop culture, and it will go on and on.

Watch a ‘Titanic’ trailer:

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