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Soundtrack review: Titanic (20th anniversary edition) (James Horner – 1997)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: Titanic (20th anniversary edition) (James Horner – 1997)



“Titanic” is a 1997 American epic romance-disaster film directed, written, co-produced and co-edited by James Cameron. A fictionalized account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as members of different social classes who fall in love aboard the ship during its ill-fated maiden voyage.mCameron’s inspiration for the film came from his fascination with shipwrecks; he felt a love story interspersed with the human loss would be essential to convey the emotional impact of the disaster. The plot is that A seventeen-year-old aristocrat falls in love with a kind but poor artist aboard the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic.

“Titanic”…”My heart will go on” sung by Celine Dion…two of the most recognisable and affecting elements of the past couple of decades. James Horner wrote that song that became legendary and this score has been one of his most appreciated and sought after. Even if James Horner is not my favourite composer of all times (he’s third, but for different reasons) there is no composer who can pull on my emotional chords like him. His music is the one which has the biggest emotional impact on me; scores like “Braveheart” or “Legends of the fall” leave me emotionally charged and then drained and, yes, they make me cry. No other composer can get to me, plain and simple, like James Horner does. His music is my weak spot, my Achille’s he

I couldn’t wait for this type of release for “Titanic”, the complete form that La La Land presents now. They did the same with “Braveheart” a couple of years ago and that release shot right at the top of my all time ranks. It’s about time I discovered “Titanic” in the same way and it’s actually the right time since it took me 20 years to finally see the movie. I will not go into details but I saw the movie for the first time in 2017, a couple of months ago, at the suggestion of my love and it simply blew me away; I’ve always been a James Cameron fan so I should have trusted him. From the visuals to the story to the intensity and to the music, this is a masterpiece and I am glad I saw it before 20 more years passed. The movie really had an impact on me and watching with somebody who was a big fan certainly helped.

James Horner was one of the best composers in film music history and this is not news to anyone; as it’s very well known that he was master of self sampling, of reusing his motifs, of having recurring themes and sounds through different scores and he was that good that this not only didn’t bother anybody but it was welcomed. When the music is perfect, I don’t mind hearing it reused over and over again. These thoughts come back to me as I hear the opening musings from “Titanic” since the Celtic motif that blends into the humming of the main theme could have very well been present on the “Braveheart” score. I like it that right from the beginning of this expanded edition we get one of the trademark over 10 minutes long Horner suites in “2-1,2 Miles down”. This piece is as dark as the deep end of the ocean with no trace of the melodic magic that made James Horner a legend. This is mystery music as its best as the subtle vocal insert swims like a mermaid through this theme before taking over and replacing mystery with awe; it’s the perfect cue to start a long adventure. I am fascinated how these opening cues set the ocean atmosphere with soft and whimsical tones, with broad yet minimalistic motifs punctuated every now and then by explosions of melody that to me evoke magnificent landscapes. The string of cues until “Southampton”, the ones that play over the initial part of the movie before the memories start, could very well be present on a sea documentary where images do all the talking and, in a way, this is the case here.

“Southampton” opens the past period of the movie and it’s that optimistic and carefree sound that James Horner can do so well by using a few instruments and voices that once again give the feeling of a fairytale to the score. The choral motif that appears here for the first time serves as a secondary theme for “Titanic” and I associate it with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character and with the starry eyed awe of being part of such a journey. There is a bit of an electronic vibe in this score that firmly places it in the 1990s as Horner often employed this technique in the 80s and 90s.

As I said before James Horner is the master of emotional manipulation and if composers like James Newton Howard or John Williams can write perfectly for a particular range of emotions, Horner is the one composer that can cover the entire spectre and who knows when it’s time for light and when it’s time for heavy; as I listen to that choral motif joyfully gleaming again in “Take her to see, Mr Murdoch” and I realise how similar it sounds to the other James Horner ocean disaster score “The perfect storm” I like the subdued emotion, that feeling that there is still a lot of place for the sound to go deeper. The movie builds up over 3 hours though and the score follows the same steps without piling it all up on us from the beginning. I am also discovering a more complex weaving with these minimalistic, darker tones I didn’t expect to find so carefully crafted on this score.

This is also the way to even further enhance the impact of the magnificent and immortal “Rose” theme that shines even brightly on that darker background even when it’s not presented in full force but subtly at first in “Rose”. It’s right up there with the best themes Horner ever wrote; I have no idea how he managed to capture the essence of the character and, after all, of the love story from “Titanic” in such a stunningly simple and beautiful theme. You know it, you’ve heard it, you’ve dreamed on it, you’ve cried on it and that flute motif is something no other composer can write as well. Had I listened to this score without seeing the movie I wouldn’t have understood why the composer chose to drop emotion in lighter doses, like a soft rain, rather than his usual hurricane intensity. The love story is simple and innocent at first before the drama begins. It is also fascinating how good the music sounds even if, as was often the case with 90s Horner, it wasn’t perfectly polished or produced.

From “A building panic” the mood changes and the soft and dreamy sound is replaced with a louder one with a sense of urgency that matches the complexity of the movie; the transition is natural and I am sitting on the edge of my seat listening to this score as I did watching the movie; there is musical suspense and I feel like I am part of the story. There’s the “Braveheart” sound again in “Unable to stay / Unwilling to leave”. There are these magical moments within Titanic that work the best for me. I still strangely feel less emotionally connected and invested in the score than I did with the movie. The exaggerated suspense in the score tampers with the emotional intensity as I keep waiting for that cathartic cue that captures what the movie transmitted me. For once James Horner focused on the tension more than anything else and this keeps the score from being perfect in my book; I think “Avatar” is where he got the balance right as if you take out the sublime main theme, the two scores are closest in tone and construction.

I admit I was expecting more of a punch from the climatic string of cues “The sinking / Death of Titanic / A promise kept”. In the movie the scenes were vivid, rich, intense and the music somehow only focuses on the fear and emptiness, it focuses on what was missing rather than what was present. This makes “Titanic” fall short by comparison to scores like “Braveheart” or “Legends of the fall” where emotion was unleashed. Maybe it’s just the way the movie felt for me but there are moments when the score fails to capture the magnitude of James Cameron’s story. By any other standards this is an exceptional score, just that for me the James Horner scale is different so I am left with a bit of a longing once it’s over. I think that he chose to make his score feel elegiac and respectful above anything else, making the ship and the memory of it all the main characters of his composition. Of course, I can’t argue with the main theme or the way it bled throughout the score; it remains one of a kind.

Cue rating: 96 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 75 / 113

Album excellence: 66%

Logo / Main Title
2 1/2 Miles Down
To the Keldysh / Rose Revealed
Distant Memories
My Drawing / Relics & Treasures
Leaving Port
Take Her to Sea, Mr. Murdoch
The Promenade / Butterfly Comb
The Portrait
Lovejoy Chases Jack and Rose
Rose Frees Jack
A Building Panic (Film Version)
Unable to Stay, Unwilling to Leave
Murdoch’s Suicide
The Sinking
A Promise Kept
A Life so Changed
A Woman’s Heart Is a Deep Ocean of Secrets

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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