Céline Dion never wanted to sing “My Heart Will Go On.” Actually, she hated it. “When I recorded it, I didn’t think about a movie; I didn’t think about radio,” she tells Billboard on the phone from her limo en route to her long-running show at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “I thought, ‘Sing the song, then get the heck out of there.’” James Cameron, the director of Titanic, wasn’t exactly a fan, either: He was dead set against ending his epic with a pop song.
But “My Heart Will Go On” didn’t just take off — it became synonymous with Cameron’s blockbuster movie, and a signature for Dion. Written by composer James Horner (who died in a 2015 plane crash at age 61) and lyricist Will Jennings, “My Heart Will Go On” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Feb. 28, 1998, buoying the Titanic soundtrack’s 16-week run atop the Billboard 200. The song also appeared on Dion’s late-1997 disc Let’s Talk About Love, and together, the two albums sold more than 60 million copies, according to Sony Music.
Twenty years later, the anthem’s global influence shows no sign of abating. After Titanic’s release, it was memorably spoofed on Saturday Night Live (on Ana Gasteyer’s “The Céline Dion Show”) and South Park, and it continues to inspire countless memes (recently, “Titanic Hoops,” which sets basketball clips to the song’s climax). In 2016, according to Nielsen Music, “My Heart Will Go On” garnered 60 million on-demand audio and video streams, making it Dion’s most streamed song of the year, and the Titanic soundtrack is one of only seven soundtracks to be certified diamond by the RIAA.
In honor of the song’s 20th anniversary, Dion, 49, will perform “My Heart Will Go On” at the Billboard Music Awards. Billboard spoke with her — as well as the song’s producers, Titanic team members and actor Billy Zane — about tales of tension at the Grammy Awards, Kate Winslet’s real feelings about the song and even menstrual cramps in the studio.
Simon Franglen (co-producer, “My Heart Will Go On” ): The buzz was terrible. Titanic was the film that was going to bring down two studios, Fox and Paramount. The movie was meant to come out July 3; in April, it was still almost five hours long.
Randy Gerston (music supervisor, Titanic): We had done a record deal with Sony to do the soundtrack — just the Horner score — and I think the label imagined that they would get an end-title song into the film. Jim [Cameron] didn’t want to end the film with a pop song. His favorite bands were Ministry and Metallica. [Cameron reportedly said, “Would you put a song at the end of Schindler’s List?”]
Tommy Mottola (then-head of Sony Music Entertainment): Cameron was getting pressure from the studio to try and have something that would be an additional powerful marketing tool. And because the studio was on the hook for this picture, for what they’d spent they were looking for every marketing opportunity that they could get.
Jon Landau (executive producer, Titanic): It had nothing to do with the marketing. Jim was open to the idea of hearing it. But he was skeptical that a pop song would work at the end of this very dramatic, historical drama.
Glen Brunman (then-executive vp, Sony Music Soundtrax): We made the deal for the album in December 1996. We knew we were buying the rights to a score album only. No song, no Céline. We paid $800,000. No one had even come close to paying that. Everybody was calling the movie “Cameron’s Folly.”
Landau: James Horner went out — without us knowing it — and wrote the song. Horner was a romantic about life, you know?
Franglen: Céline at one point sang the lead vocal on the single from An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, which Horner wrote. She sounded exquisite, but she wasn’t a big star at the time, and they decided to go back to Linda Ronstadt, who had sung “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. But Horner always remembered Céline’s vocal. There came a point when James brought me a piano sketch of “My Heart Will Go On” and said, “Do you think this would work for Céline?”
Céline Dion: I was in a suite with a piano at Caesars Palace. [Horner] started to play the song. With all the respect that I have for James — poor him, this guy is looking above us right now — he is not the greatest singer. I was making this sign like, “This is not possible.” René [Angélil, Dion’s late husband] stopped him: “James, James, James. Listen to me. You’re not doing justice to the song right now. I’m going to make a deal with you: Let’s have Céline make a demo.” I wanted to choke my husband. Because I didn’t want to do it! I just came out of “Because You Loved Me,” and then “Beauty and the Beast” was, like, huge. Why do we need to break our nose?
Mottola: Behind closed doors, I think René told her this was going to be one of the biggest things in her career.
Recording the Demo
Mottola: I remember going into the studio that night, around 9 p.m. We had all gone out to dinner.
Dion: I was mad! I don’t feel good. I have belly pains. My girly days are starting to happen. I’m going to have a black coffee with sugar — which I never have on my studio days because it speeds up my vibrato. But I got to New York and I do that. And [Horner] is explaining to me what is the movie all about. He said, “Just think about that and do it.” I’m like (sarcastically), “All right, thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Mottola: It was myself, Céline, René, Jim Horner and Polly Anthony, who was then the president of Epic Records. Everything was kind of calm and quiet. Céline went in the booth and turned the lights down, and we could just faintly see her face. And she laid down this vocal — nonstop, OK? One take. We were all getting chills.
Franglen: That very first “Near, far, wherever you are” — everybody knew that she could belt, but there was something about the delicacy.
Dion: They’re all crying. And they said, “We’re done.” I said, “OK, well, I’m glad that you liked the demo.” Horner said, “We might not have to do it again.” I said, “What are you talking about?”
Landau: Now the question was, how to best present it to Jim?
Franglen: I did a decent mix. And James Horner carried around a cassette for weeks on weeks on weeks, waiting for the right time to play it for Cameron. He wanted him to be in a good mood.
Dion: I didn’t think that James Cameron is just going to buy this thing. James Cameron didn’t want to have a song in his movie. “My movie is big enough, I don’t need something bigger, I don’t need any singer.” And I don’t blame him. But Horner says, “I’m not going to tell you who sang the song. Just please give me a favor and listen just one time.”
A screening of Titanic — with the song edited into the film — is arranged for Dion and Angélil with Cameron in New York.
Mottola: Most people thought, “Well, it’s too long, I’m not so sure about this.”
John Doelp (co-executive producer of Dion’s English-language albums): At the very end, James Cameron stood up and asked Céline, “How did you feel about the movie?” Céline held up her Kleenex. And it was completely tattered, because she’d been crying so much.
Franglen: I don’t think Jim has ever been someone who needs other people’s opinion. But I know that he personally got the song. He felt like it gave a resonance to the rest of the movie.
Landau: The movie had a punch [without the song]. What it did not have was something you could take home with you. They found an organic way to weave “My Heart Will Go On” in. It’s just a continuation of the epilogue of the film.
Billy Zane (actor, Titanic): The big night for me was the premiere at the Chinese [Theater]. The song just delivered. People were reduced to jelly. The most stoic and stalwart pillars of the industry… they were beside themselves. When she hits the high note in “Near, far, wherever you are” — bam! The floodgates open.
The Road to the Grammy Awards
There were two versions of “My Heart Will Go On”: one that appears at the end of the film and a more produced pop single for radio that won the Grammy for record of the year in 1999.
Billie Woodruff (director of the music video): Céline’s marketing person reached out to me because Céline, I think, loved the stuff I’d done with Toni Braxton. So I went out to Paramount. James was still finishing the film. And the people at the studio were like, “It’s going to be a disaster.” I remember sitting there thinking, “I can’t believe they’re saying this to me.” I watched the movie, and I’m crying at the end!
I hopped on a plane to Las Vegas to meet Céline. I was nervous. She opened the door, and I’m like, “Hey, I’m Bille.” And she started singing “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. She made me comfortable immediately.
Walter Afanasieff (co-producer, “My Heart Will Go On”): I’ve never said this before, but I never met James Horner until we stood onstage together at the Grammys. I came into the process from the first point that they decided to make a big radio single. There was no version existing except for a tiny little piano vocal demo that Céline had done with Horner. To be very honest, I didn’t really get it. I thought it was a very simple song that just meandered. It was a little dreary. Epic Records called me and said, “Well, do what you can.”
I arranged and produced it. Céline did her vocals with me. She did one take on the demo that you hear in the movie. But whenever you’re talking about the big single — which is what’s on her album, the song that won the Grammy Award for record of the year — that’s what we’re talking about. I can’t agree to all of these other cockamamie, one-take stories.
Doelp: No. We were making the record [Let’s Talk About Love] in New York. Walter was working out of his place. The vocal was great. And from Céline’s standpoint, she wouldn’t sing it again if it was [already] great.
Mottola: If Walter says that, then I believe that. Walter would remember.
Dion: I don’t remember. It went so fast.
Afanasieff: I produced and recorded from scratch — the orchestra, the timpani rolls, the background vocals, the guitar solo, the giant drums. Then, all of a sudden, at the end of the process the label instructed me to accept [Horner’s] name next to mine as co-producer. And I went a little bit sideways on that. I had no idea why someone who has never stepped foot in the studio with me would be my co-producer. I don’t wish to speak ill of someone who passed away, but that was a very hard pill to swallow.
Mottola: Walter is a brilliant, brilliant producer. And his version really propelled that record. But James Horner had creative license and came up with ideas and parts of the arrangements, and, you know, Walter embellished and redid.
Woodruff: We shot the video in Los Angeles over two days. Céline was so open. She’s like, “You want to talk about my hair? Come on the trailer.” She has no walls up. Céline never said, “How many takes?” There was a point I was shooting her for so long, she was standing there singing and she fell asleep standing up!
Teeing Up a Hit
Mottola: [“My Heart Will Go On”] had a slow start. It was Christmastime; programmers, stations were locked up. The song was released six weeks before the movie. Come January the picture comes out. It was like throwing gasoline on a bonfire. It exploded the song.
Carl Wilson (critic and author of Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste): It has such a particular powerhouse quality that invades your head. The pennywhistle is definitely a piercing announcement that “My Heart Will Go On” is now playing. And then the song is one extended climax. You think it can’t get any bigger. But it just keeps getting bigger.
Zane: I was at Harrods in England, descending the escalator to the Egyptian-themed bowels. And the song was playing quite loudly. I was being recognized on the descent. I felt like Norma Desmond coming down the staircase.?
Brunman: A little-recognized accomplishment of “My Heart Will Go On” is how many Titanic movie tickets it sold. Long after the enormous worldwide marketing campaigns of Paramount and Fox had spent their last advertising dollars, the continuing airplay and video play for “My Heart Will Go On” acted as a constant reminder to go see the movie again.
Mottola: It was a song that propelled by now almost a billion dollars in [music] sales. Céline is a very gracious, generous person. And has done nothing but be thankful. Unlike many [artists].
Arrival at the Oscars
Titanic was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, taking home 11 trophies on March 23, 1998, including best original song, presented by Madonna, who opened the envelope and memorably quipped from the stage: “What a shocker…”
Dion: I think I was numb. Michael Kors did this dress for me. Everybody goes for chiffon dresses and décolletage, and I really wanted a turtleneck dress. He said, “A turtleneck?!” Yes. Long-sleeve. Very tight. Just navy blue, like the water, but very deep down, like the ocean. I had about a $200 million dollar necklace around my neck. I had six bodyguards on the red carpet. I thought it was for me, but it was not for me. It was for the necklace. When I sang the song, I hit my chest.
Doelp: People used to call that “the Céline salute.”
Dion: I forgot that I was wearing it. I could feel the bodyguards engaging, like, Man down! They did not give me the necklace, unfortunately.
Dion: They told me, “You know that Kate Winslet said every time she hears the song, she wants to throw up?” And I answered, “Thank God she didn’t have to sing it!”
Landau: I’ve spoken to Kate about this. Her comment was not about the song — it was the idea that when she would walk into a restaurant, they would start to play it. She couldn’t get away from it.
Zane: You hear it at karaoke, drifting in from neighboring booths in Farsi. And it feels like all is right in the kingdom. The song is an easy target for postmodern millennial hipster angst. Why? Because it’s sincere? It’s the rarest of things: It’s quality. I would like to hear more power ballads. More power ballads, I say!
Afanasieff: You get to a point where you’re sick of it. Years and years, nobody played that song. People were so over it. But I wish this song another 2 million years on earth, that people will go, “It’s one of the greatest songs of all time.”
Wilson: I love all of the mall punk covers. New Found Glory is the best known. There is a scene in Gilmore Girls where it is just played wordlessly, on an acoustic guitar, at the funeral of a chow chow. It actually becomes emotionally affecting in that context.
Franglen: I was working with a Mongolian band north of Beijing, and someone said, “He produced ‘My Heart Will Go On!’ ” At which point I got presented with a Chinese version of it. It was very nice to win record of the year. And I’m very pleased with the royalties. But I’m proud of it because it means something to an awful lot of people.
Dion: Every night [in Vegas] I’m like, “Oh, gosh, I’m not going to sing that song again.” And then that curtain opens and the smoke starts and people are crying. Every night when I start to sing that song, I think, “Gee, what a song. What a moment.” I’m so thankful that they did not listen to me. I said, “No way, José. At the end of the day, I’m the one that sings it and sells it. I’m not doing that.” I’m so glad that my husband said, “I really think that you should do that song.”
This article originally appeared in the May 27 issue of Billboard.