In hindsight, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the love theme from James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, seems—like a certain boat—too big to fail. It’s a big emotional ballad sung with maximum power and precision by the day’s leading practitioner of such things. And yet, there were a number of factors, including Dion’s initial dislike of the song, that nearly played iceberg and prevented this definitive ’90s pop-culture moment from happening. But fate wanted the world to have this song.
Prior to Titanic, filmmaker James Cameron was known for sci-fi fare like Aliens, The Abyss, and the Terminator series. But after watching a documentary on Robert Ballard’s 1985 discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic—which famously sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, killing approximately 1500 people—Cameron resolved to make a movie about the doomed ocean liner. It wound up being a massive undertaking, and when Titanic finally hit theaters in December 1997, it was $100 million over budget and six months late.
There are different theories as to why Cameron included a modern pop song at the end of his period drama, even though he was staunchly against the idea. Speaking to Billboard for a “My Heart Will Go On” oral history in 2017, former Sony Music boss Tommy Mottola suggested Cameron was pressured by the film studio to provide an “additional powerful marketing tool,” as some feared the movie would be a flop. Titanic executive producer Jon Landau refuted this claim, insisting that Cameron was always willing to consider a pop song. The director simply didn’t think one would fit into his “very dramatic, historical drama.”
Unbeknownst to the film’s producers, Titanic composer James Horner had already begun writing a song for the end credits. It incorporated elements of his score and promised to fit seamlessly into the movie. He recruited Will Jennings, with whom he’d worked on other film projects, to write the lyrics. Horner told Jennings the movie centered on the character of Rose DeWitt Bukater, a Titanic survivor looking back on a love affair decades later.
Cameron partly drew inspiration for Rose from Beatrice Wood, an artist nicknamed the "Mama of Dada," whose autobiography the director was reading during Titanic's development. Though Wood was not a Titanic passenger, she, like Rose, had a deep passion for art. She had studied in Paris before World War I and lived an incredible life. In order to gain a better understanding of Cameron's inspiration, Jennings met with Wood, who was then 103 years old and still working.
“When she shook my hand, I had such a feeling of vitality and life force—it was like nothing in my life before or since,” Jennings told Songfacts. Using Wood’s story as a stand-in for Rose’s, Jennings came up with “My Heart Will Go On,” a song about resilience and eternal love. With the music and lyrics in place, Horner and Jennings now just needed someone to sing the darn thing.
Horner and Jennings had worked together on the 1991 animated feature An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, and they tapped Celine Dion to sing the demo version of “Dreams to Dream,” a song they ultimately gave to Linda Ronstadt, who was then a bigger star. By 1997, Dion had scored a couple of massive soundtrack hits—including “Beauty and the Beast,” the title track from the 1991 Disney movie, and “Because You Loved Me,” from Jon Avnet's Up Close & Personal—and blossomed into a pop heavyweight. Jennings says Dion was always their top choice to sing “My Heart Will Go On,” but when Horner first played her the song on piano in her Las Vegas hotel suite, she wasn’t impressed.
According to Dion, Horner (who died in a plane crash in 2015) wasn’t a great singer, so he didn’t do the best job of selling his song. Beyond that, Dion didn’t want to record another movie theme. While Horner played, she mouthed “I don’t want to do that song” to her husband and manager, René Angélil.
Perhaps sensing the song’s potential, Angélil stopped Horner’s performance and agreed to have Dion record a demo. The Canadian superstar was not pleased, and when she arrived in New York City to lay down vocals a few weeks later, she was feeling even worse. “I have belly pains,” she told Billboard. “My girly days are starting to happen.” After Horner gave Dion a quick summary of the Titanic plot, the singer dimmed the lights and stepped into the vocal booth. Moved by the story and buzzing from black coffee, which sped up her vibrato, Celine nailed the song in a single take.
“Everybody started to cry, and I got caught by the emotion as well, by the story of the movie and the whole thing,” Dion said in a TV interview. Mottola remembers getting chills. Session co-producer Simon Franglen made a rough mix to play for a skeptical Cameron, and Horner carried around a cassette for weeks, waiting to catch the director in a good mood. Cameron ultimately went for the song, and when he screened the film—complete with “My Heart Will Go On”—for Dion and Angélil, Celine cried her eyes out.
Ruling the Radio
Dion has claimed that she never recorded “My Heart Will Go On” again, but there’s some debate over whether this is true. When it came time to release the song as a radio single, Dion’s label enlisted producer Walter Afanasieff to transform the pared-down film version—Dion’s initial demo—into something bigger and bolder. “To be very honest, I didn’t really get it,” Afanasieff told Billboard. “I thought it was a very simple song that just meandered. It was a little dreary.”
Afanasieff arranged and produced the new version, adding strings, thundering drums, and electric guitar. He also claims to have re-recorded Celine’s vocals. “I can’t agree to all of these other cockamamie, one-take stories,” he said. Dion’s longtime producer John Doelp maintains that the singer was in New York working on her album Let’s Talk About Love while Afanasieff was doing his thing, so she couldn’t have taken another vocal pass.
Either way, the souped-up “My Heart Will Go On” didn’t explode onto the radio straight away. It landed in early December 1997, before the movie came out, and it struck some Top 40 programmers as too “adult contemporary” for their playlists. The label even considered not releasing the song as a commercial single—a move that would have disqualified it from making the Billboard Hot 100, America’s premier pop chart. But when Titanic hit theaters and became a phenomenon, airplay went through the roof.
In February 1998, the song set a record for "reaching the largest radio audience" up to that point—and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. By then, the Titanic soundtrack had already begun its 16-week run atop the Billboard 200 album chart. The LP has since been certified 11 times platinum in the U.S. and sold some 30 million copies worldwide. This was a major win for Sony, as the label had paid a mere $800,000 for the rights to the soundtrack back in 1996, before Dion was attached, and it was just going to be the film score.
“My Heart Will Go On” was also included on Dion’s album Let’s Talk About Love, so naturally, that LP reached No. 1, too. All told, “My Heart Will Go On” has sold more than 18 million copies globally. The song also dominated both the 1998 and 1999 award seasons, earning the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, as well as four Grammys: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television.
At the Grammys, Afanasieff met Horner for the first time, even though both men are credited as producers on the song's blockbuster radio version. Afanasieff was miffed about sharing credit since, in his mind, he’d remade the track completely by himself. “I don’t wish to speak ill of someone who passed away,” Afanasieff told Billboard, nearly two years after Horner’s untimely death, “but that was a very hard pill to swallow.”
The Song Will Go On
In the decades since, Dion has continued blowing minds and making audiences weep with her live renditions of “My Heart Will Go On.” In 2017, she marked the song’s 20th anniversary with a performance at the Billboard Music Awards. The song took on added significance shortly before her husband’s death in January 2019 after a long battle with cancer. As he lay in bed, nearing the end of his life, Angélil reportedly longed to see Dion sing the Titanic song from the stage of her Las Vegas residency. Dion live-streamed the show to his room. “It wasn’t therapeutic for me,” she said. “It was therapeutic for René.”
As expected, YouTube is brimming with “My Heart Will Go On” covers—the most spectacular of which might be 9-year-old Celine Tam’s showstopping rendition on America’s Got Talent in 2017. YouTube is also a good place to find a supercut of sports highlights set to the part in the song where Celine changes key for the final chest-beating chorus.
The song’s legacy even extends to the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, where Pasifika youth in the “siren kings” subculture have taken to blasting “My Heart Will Go On” during battles to see who has the loudest, clearest homemade loudspeaker system. The song is perfectly suited to these sonic skirmishes because of its crisp, pure sound. It rings out near, far, wherever you are.