|Left to right: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic|
With the passing of composer James Horner, it seems appropriate to look on a man whose output helped to shape contemporary film history. Having done everything from A Beautiful Mind to Braveheart, he was a prolific composer to always enjoyed a challenge. However, for his most successful score, there's a strange and beautiful history behind it. The beloved theme song "My Heart Will Go On" almost didn't happen. Chalk it up to stubbornness to create history with a little bit of disobedience on Horner's part.
For Horner, there are few scores that will likely be as synonymous with his name as Titanic. This isn't just because the film is the highest grossing film of all time, or at least until Avatar (also composed by Horner). The musician also had the honor of having the biggest selling orchestral soundtrack in history. He also won his only two Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. During his acceptance speech for the latter, he joked with director James Cameron about allowing him to keep the song in the film. While that may just seem like silly banter, there's actually some truth to it.
Horner and Cameron first worked together in 1986 on Aliens. They wouldn't work together again until Titanic because Cameron was more interested in soundtracks with heavy synthesizers. However, when the need for a historical epic was approached, Cameron turned to his old collaborator, who had stayed busy up until that point. He even composed six scores alone in 1995. As one would guess, there was a need for orchestration and something more traditional in the vein of romantic epics of the past. In fact, there was only two things: no violins and Horner was not to write any new song for the film.
The prospect seemed initially easy. Since this was Cameron doing a genre different from his action-adventure work of the past, he felt the need to specify that this wasn't just going to be traditional. He wanted complexity. This is likely one of the many reasons that the film initially seemed like it was doomed to fail all along. It even got pushed back from an August release to a Christmas one to allow for editing. While there were editors, Cameron would take it home and edit it himself. The history of the film itself is too long and storied to get into here.
So what exactly was Horner's motivation? According to an interview with Empire, it was solely to keep audiences attentive. He personally believed that his job was to keep audiences from putting on their coats and leaving during the closing credits. Considering the forceful ending of the film, there wasn't any notion that a traditional eight minute score would do the trick. He wanted it to be more intimate and emotional. He initially tried vocalizations, but found himself too tempted to write words to the music. He would later collaborate with Celine Dion in secrecy, who according to legend recorded the song in a single take.
When Horner felt that Cameron had his film in a good condition, he approached the director with the song. The response wasn't immediate. He played it for his family, who liked it. Still, it went against the very notion of what he was going for. However, much like the use of violins, it would eventually sneak into the film in ways that actually elevated the dramatic tension of the film. It took the director two and a half months to finally accept that it wasn't a gimmick, but a tool that could create a deeper and more rich text to the epic. This happened after he screened it for a test audience and found that they were having visceral reactions. Horner even commented that he felt that what they had created was so great that it would immediately change people's minds about the film being a failure akin to Cleopatra or Heaven's Gate before.
The rest is history and "My Heart Will Go On" remains one of the most piercing love songs in history. With its rhythmic flows, simple lyrics, and growing build into a passionate finale, it became its own phenomenon outside of the film. While it is largely based off of the motifs featured throughout the film, it would come to define Titanic more than the actual movie. With a best selling soundtrack also in tow, the legacy is already in place. While Cameron and Horner would work together again on Avatar and do great work, it would be interesting to see how different history would be if Horner took the director's advice too literally and actually didn't write the song. How would the movie end? There's very little belief that it would be better.