The death of James Horner, which occurred on the June 22, was a massive blow to the world of American cinema. Horner was responsible for the music to some of the world’s biggest movies, including Avatar, Aliens, Braveheart, Apollo 13, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Horner even wrote the epic fantasy music for the cult film Krull, and he may be the reason people still talk about that curio today. He was a towering presence, and he will be missed.
Horner’s best-known soundtrack record is easily for James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. It’s a score we all know, it’s a movie we’ve all seen, and I’m willing to bet many of you out there owned the soundtrack CD back in the late 1990s (technically called Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture). Some of you may have even bought Back to Titanic, the follow-up record with new covers of songs from the movie, as well as a newly-composed James Horner suite. Or the four-disc anniversary edition that had specially selected Titanic dinner music, and music from Titanic’s era. Yes, the ’90s were such a magical time for soundtrack records – and Titanic was so bloody huge – that the albums themselves could warrant multiple sequels.
It’s unlike SoundTreks to review a movie’s score, but James Horner kind of demands it. Plus, this was a pretty damn important soundtrack; to date, it is the highest selling orchestral record of all time (going undecuple platinum), and charting at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Movie scores tend to repeat motifs, and are constructed to highlight action, so going through the score track by track would get a little repetitive after a while. As such, I will focus on certain highlights.
Track 1. “Never An Absolution”
Horner elected to flavor the entire Titanic score with a distinctly Irish sound. He also chose a lot of lilting female vocals to underline the action. This may be Horner’s reaction to James Cameron’s original desire to have Irish crooner Enya compose the music for the movie. Horner likely heard the Enya scratch track and came up with something similar. I think getting an actual composer was a wise choice. Having a pop star compose music for a movie, especially one of Titanic‘s size, would have been potentially less graceful and cinematic. Although other pop stars have fared well. Just look at Danny Elfman.
This first track is a lullaby. Indeed, much of this soundtrack could function as a lullaby. A Norwegian singer named Sissel Kyrkjebø sang the melody. I believe she is, aside from Céline Dion, the only human voice to appear on this record.
Track 4. “Rose”
The tune to a rather notorious pop hit (which we’ll get to) was first quoted in Rose’s theme. When I saw Titanic back in December of 1997, I was a cynical college student, already fancying myself an enthusiast of dark, weird art films, so I saw Titanic as the enemy. A big schlocky Hollywood product designed to make money. It wasn’t art. Of course, like so many, I was blindsided by Titanic. It is still, to this day, one of the finest examples of popular filmmaking. This is A++ production value, and there is a place in film history for that.
And, yes, I cried. I cried during Titanic. Like so many of you, I cried. And why did I cry? I cried not because of the story or because of the romance, but because of the music. And this sweet, romantic tune says so much more about Rose than any of the acting or the clunky dialogue. This music reveals the gentle love in Rose’s heart. In dialogue, we’re assured she deep and interesting. On the page, she isn’t. In our ears, however, she is. This track gives the character life.
For the record, I’m still angry at The Man for making me cry.
Track 6. “Take Her to Sea, Mr. Murdoch”
This is my favorite track on the record. It comes when the Titanic is, simply, leaving port. It’s a glorious piece of music that is, oddly enough, free of bombast. It’s large and inspiring, yet still gentle. A bit of trivia: James Horner intended there to be a live chorus singing on this score, but needed a temporary synthesized choir during the recording process to hold their place until he could gather a choir together. He grew so fond of the digital singers, however, that he left them in.
Although I’m sure a choir would have sounded great, the digital voices actually add a weird extra dimension to the music. It’s not majestic, but the fake voices add a weird flavor of modernity to the period piece. Titanic was all about man’s triumph over nature, so it should make sense that the filmmaker should employ the latest in cinematic technology to make the film, and for the composer to blend ultra-modern sounds with his orchestral score.
Track 8. “Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave”
Here’s what James Horner could do that few other composers can manage. He could go for the gut. There is something gentle and relatable about Horner’s scores that was unique to him. You compare Horner to his most obvious contemporary, John Williams, and you begin to see the divide. Williams wrote gigantic, hummable tunes with boldness and bombast. You could hear masculine adventure in Williams’ music. Horner, on the other hand, wrote from a more feminine mindset. He was less interested in bombast and more interested in emotion. Williams wanted to gesticulate and perform. Horner wanted to gently invite us in.
Tracks 9. “The Sinking” and Track 10. “Death of Titanic”
Action music tends to overwhelm action. It’s more noise in an already noisy scene. In the modern age, when any and all action movies are directly ripping off Hans Zimmer’s score to Batman Begins (seriously, they all are), it’s kind of refreshing to hear the action music from James Horner in your ears.
Listening to film’s action music out of context can be tiring, because it’s kind of atonal and amelodic and, without action, sounds disconnected. Horner was able to crank out the usual action beats with the best of them, but was careful to include the movie’s other themes, and a few more subtle variations throughout. These two tracks, especially “Death of Titanic,” illustrate more than just tension. They show a variety of emotions.
Track 14. “My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from Titanic)” – Céline Dion
Well, here it is. The single most loved – and the single most hated – pop song of the 1990s. Seriously, I can think of no single pop song that is more divisive than this one. Half of the audience adored “My Heart Will Go On,” and I know many, many teenage girls who played this song over and over again in their dorm rooms, pining for a romance as pure as the one in Titanic, preferably with a boy who looked a lot like a 1997-era Leonardo DiCaprio. Some critics, I seem to recall, were even declaring this the most romantic song ever written.
On the other side of the equation, you had thousands upon thousands of people who were fucking sick of this thing. It was overplayed and overlong and over-dramatic, and it became a symbol for how bad pop music was getting. Céline Dion became something of a demon.
So how is it really?
Based on the music by Horner, sung by Dion, with lyrics by Will Jennings (an old-guard songwriter for Jimmy Buffet, Eric Clapton, Roy Orbison, et al), “My Heart Will Go On” is overwrought to say the least. As a song to punctuate a production the size of Titanic, it’s perfectly fitting. If you’re going to write a love song to match Titanic, it should perhaps be as loud, bombastic, and super-sappy as you can make it. This is not quite as bombastic as, say something Jim “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Steinman would write, but “My Heart Will Go On” is one hell of a barn burner. I admire the hugeness of the production, and I think Dion’s voice is perfectly fitted for this sort of song.
But, I admit, I feel only admiration, perhaps mixed with a mild annoyance, when I hear it. I’m not moved by “My Heart Will Go On” the same way I am with just the film’s natural score. I would be more moved by an old recording of a Titanic-era love song. Love songs should be, in my ear, quiet and tender and sincere. A belter like “My Heart Will Go On” doesn’t evoke love so much as desperation. ARE YOU IN LOVE YET? I WILL PUMMEL YOU WITH MUSIC UNTIL YOU ARE! Yeah. Not so romantic.
But the song does feel timeless, and if you’re the kind of person who responds to songs like “It’s All Coming Back to Me,” then “My Heart Will Go On” will be your Platonic ideal. I suppose, in that sense, it’s the perfect song for Titanic. The movie is overwrought and super-produced and enormous and is going to make damn sure you feel something. So goes the song. It will live on.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Film?
I cannot say. The movie is the music and vice versa. They are both prime examples of the popular craft. I am tempted to give the nose-out to James Horner, as I sense less in the way of commercial construction around his score, unlike James Cameron who was clearly more interested in the commercial viability and technical success of his movie than he was in deep love stories and interesting characters. But Titanic is such a big and easily consumable score, the movie’s largesse begins to leak in regardless. The score constructed the movie, and the movie constructed the score.
So we have a tie. One cannot separate the music from the movie. They are linked in both mood, function, and financial success. Revisiting “My Heart Will Go On” will not make you love it any more or less than when you first heard it in 1997.