With the release of Titanic 3D, and its incredible worldwide success (outgrossing most first run movies this year) I’m once again being asked questions about ‘that moment’. As the ship sinks , the band begins to play ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ and time (and the movie) seems to stand still for a moment of quiet contemplation. It’s probably one of the classic all-time movie moments to rank alongside ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in Dr No, and the Pythons singing ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life’ (oops that’s one of mine too!)
Here’s how that classic scene was carefully planned by James Cameron and me. I’d recorded the wonderful I Salonisti sessions in Zurich before shooting commenced (you can hear the results of these sessions on the Titanic Anniversary Edition 2CD and 4CD box sets). Having turned down the chance to play Wallace Hartley in the film (I can’t play violin, can’t act, and had another movie in the works) I closed the book on Titanic and moved on to other things. Or so I thought.
One Saturday morning I awoke bright and early. The answer machine was definitely empty when I went to bed at about 1am. So it was with some surprise that I noticed it blinking with 9 messages when I came downstairs some 7 hours later. I scratched my head, yawned and pressed play.
‘John, this is Jon Landau’s assistant – could you please ring me on Mexico 1234?’
‘This is Jon Landau’s assistant, please call me’
Three more of these, each increasing in urgency, then
‘John, this is Jon Landau, please call me immediately!’
Three more of these followed, and then there it was
‘John, James Cameron, ring me!’
I needed no second bidding – thus far my job as historical music advisor had been pretty straightforward – take the White Star Line playlist, choose 25 or so pieces from it (a mix of classical reductions, popular salon pieces, and hits of the day – including some that were so obscure the Library of Congress archive had to be raided), speak to the wonderful musicians of I Salonisti – 2 violins, cello, double bass and piano (who were not only to record the music but were to play the ship’s orchestra in the movie) and, of course, write the missing arrangements. Then travel to Zurich to produce the recordings. And then sit back and relax while the filming progressed. Or so I thought….
I dialed the number, which after hearing it 9 times in a row I now knew by heart. ‘John Altman for James Cameron’ I announced, with a tremble in my voice. ‘Ah yes, one moment please’ I heard the sound of footsteps, then nothing, and then……….. the unmistakeable sound of water splashing. A voice….
‘James, this is John Altman calling from London’
‘Nearer My God To Thee – how do the words fit the music?’
‘The words – how do they fit the music?’
Aaaah – now I realized the urgency….and realized that people had been waiting in the water, possibly all night, for this moment. I began to sing (my vocal abilities would not give Bocelli sleepless nights at the best of times, and this certainly wasn’t the best of times.)
‘One moment!’ the mighty Cameron interrupted my flow ‘OK start again.’
I did, if possible sounding even worse at the second attempt, and realized that there was now a microphone or megaphone held to the mobile phone beaming it out to heaven knows how many cast and crew members. I finished my a cappella rendition to total silence, then a perfunctory ‘thank you’ from the great director, and then the click of the receiver.
It seems that when they came to shoot the climactic scene, neither of the two melodies we had recorded for Nearer My God were the one that James Cameron remembered, and no one on set knew the one he desired. My awful telephonic vocal rendition was enough to set the filming back on track and they were able to complete the now classic sequence with no further delays. So if the scene in the film seems realistically spontaneous, you now know the secret. It was!
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Posted in: Music History 101