Even in competitive Hollywood, screen composer James Horner has maintained his composure. Still, the blockbuster Titanic score is really rocking his boat.

Two weeks ago, James Horner was standing at the check-out counter of a Woodland Hills, Calif., electronics store when it happened. “The teller recognized the name on my credit card,” he confides. “Then 5 others joined her, and suddenly 40 people surrounded me, thinking I’d been caught shoplifting. Then they found out, ‘Oh, he wrote the Titanic music,’ and asked for an autograph. I was so embarrassed, I was thinking, Thank God I’m not a star.”

Jimmy, babe, have you scoped the charts lately? The 44-year-old film composer (Apollo 13, Glory) is riding a stunning wave of success with his Golden Globe-winning score to James Cameron’s Titanic. Holding steady after three surprising weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the soundtrack is sinking industry records faster than the ship itself went down almost 86 years ago. Propelled by Horner’s haunting, Celtic-flavored orchestral score and Celine Dion’s tremulous power ballad “My Heart Will Go On,” the Sony Classical/Sony Music Soundtrax release is certified triple platinum and has become the best-selling film score ever after only 10 weeks at retail. “Look what this album is selling after Christmas, when traffic in stores drastically reduces,” says Sony Music exec Glen Brunman. “How much further will it go? We don’t know. It’s an amazing story.”

In more ways than one. Consider the original teaming of Horner and Cameron on 1986’s Aliens. “This was his first big film,” Horner says, “and he wanted every frame and note to be perfect. But I had just 10 days to write the music, and there was a lot of friction between us. I didn’t think we’d ever work together again.”

Cut to a decade later. After reading Titanic‘s script with wet eyes, Horner contacted Cameron. The filmmaker, who at the time was enamored with Horner’s Braveheart score, screened 36 hours of Titanic footage for the composer. Horner wrote the movie’s main themes in one night. This time around, he says, “Jim and I just hit it off,” though things did get a little intense during the film’s famously prolonged postproduction period: “We’d lock the movie, then release dates would shift and Jim would fine-tune it, so I’d fine-tune. Then we’d lock it and the dates would shift again, and he’d fine-tune, and I’d say, ‘God, I’m gonna have to do this cue 600 times!”‘

The tinkering didn’t end there. Horner envisioned a love song sung over the film’s closing credits but knew “Jim was dead set against it.” Surreptitiously, Horner recruited lyricist Will Jennings to put words to Titanic‘s dominant instrumental theme, then called in a favor from friend Celine Dion, who laid down the vocal for “My Heart Will Go On.” “She was singing the song,” Horner recalls, eyes welling up, “and 20 people in the studio started crying. Celine had to stop and compose herself.” The song, and Dion’s emotionally raw performance, proved so compelling, Cameron was sold — and what was intended as only a rough demo recording wound up on the finished soundtrack. (Dion recruited Horner to coproduce a slicker rendition for her quadruple-platinum album Let’s Talk About Love, currently No. 2 on the Billboard 200 behind you-know-what.)

While there’s talk of a Titanic follow-up disc, Horner insists Hollywood isn’t calling any more than usual. “Nothing’s really changed,” he says, tucked away in his spartan Calabasas, Calif., studio. “I just try to keep the outside world away and keep an even course.” That might be more difficult after the most fantastic wreck of his career.

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