John Williams Honored at BMI Film, TV and Visual Media Awards

The composer's theme for "Solo: A Star Wars Story," set to be unveiled May 25, is likely to be his only movie work heard this year.

onstage during 34th Annual BMI Film,
Getty Images for BMI

Legendary composer John Williams accepted a new award, named after him, “in recognition of his incomparable status as one of the greatest film and television composers of our time,” at Wednesday night’s Film, TV and Visual Media Awards of Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) in Beverly Hills.

The creator of such iconic movie themes as “Jaws,” “E.T.” and the musical signatures of the “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “Harry Potter” franchises had already received the organization’s top honor (the BMI Icon) in 1999, so the performing-rights society invented a new one, which the 86-year-old composer said he would “humbly accept, with a little embarrassment but a lot of gratitude.”

Speaking exclusively to Variety before the ceremony, Williams acknowledged that “in the last year or two, awards seem to be coming along,” cracking, “It must have something to do with being so old, they must think now is the time.” Williams became the first composer recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Honor in 2016.

“I’ve been extraordinarily lucky,” he said, citing “my relationships in the film industry here in California, and those I’ve developed in Boston [with the Boston Pops Orchestra, where he was music director for 13 years] and so many other orchestras. It’s been, and I hope will continue to be for a while, a really joyous life in music of all kinds, and with incredible people.”

His latest composition for film is “The Adventures of Han,” the theme for “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which will be unveiled May 25, but, he told Variety, that is likely to be his only movie work heard this year. He is writing a concert piece, “Highwood’s Ghost,” commemorating Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, to premiere Aug. 27 in Tanglewood, Mass., with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and harpist Jessica Zhou “having a mad duel over who is going to be the ghost and who is going to be the ectoplasmic atmosphere. It’ll be fun,” he said.

Later this year, Williams said, he expects to begin work on “Star Wars Episode IX” for J.J. Abrams, which will open at Christmas 2019. In the meantime, he added with a wink, “There is always a possibility that our friend Mr. Spielberg may call.” He has scored 32 films for Steven Spielberg, who said in a video tribute that his work with Williams “has been the greatest partnership I’ve ever had in film.”

Also in the video, “Star Wars” producer George Lucas praised him as “the kindest, nicest, most cooperative, easy to work with, wonderful person that’s ever lived on this planet — or on any other planet.”

BMI President and CEO Mike O’Neill noted that Williams “has done more to help popularize film music in concert halls than any other conductor in America. Along the way, he has introduced millions of young people to the joys of symphonic music. He has been a role model for generations of aspiring composers, not just for his famous themes but for his work ethic.”

That was echoed by several other top composers who spoke to Variety at the event.

“There is no one like John Williams,” said Alan Silvestri (“Avengers: Infinity War”). “I don’t think he has an equal. He elevated not just music but the stature of the film composer in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of filmmakers.”

Added James Newton Howard (“Fantastic Beasts”): “What people don’t often remember is that the music that occurs in between those happily unforgettable themes is so brilliant, his storytelling so remarkable. I’ve tried to understand and dissect it,” adding, tongue-in-cheek, that he has “tried to copy it without any success.”

Brian Tyler (“The Avengers”) said that “his music hits a nerve emotionally, and for all the accolades and the celebration, he is still underrated. I think it will be a century before we fully realize just how impactful his music has been.”

Veteran TV composer Mike Post noted that “it’s one thing to be recognized as the most successful; it’s a whole ‘nother thing to be recognized as unequivocally the best at something. Nobody has ever done it for so long, as well, as consistently.”

And Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”) added: “I see John as a total lover of music, and that translates into a love of drama. That wild association of drama and music makes what he does absolutely unique.”

Also at the ceremony, composers Laura Karpman, Lolita Ritmanis and Miriam Cutler were presented with the BMI Champion Award for founding the Alliance of Women Film Composers. BMI Vice President Doreen Ringer-Ross thanked them for “leading the charge and striving to even the playing field for all composers.

The Alliance now has 300 members, a far cry from BMI’s first luncheon when “there were only about five working female composers, and two of them used to be men,” Ringer-Ross quipped. “It’s been a long and arduous road to get the industry to pay attention to gender and hire women composers.”

Receiving BMI’s Classic Contribution Award was composer Rick Baitz, for his 10-year commitment to its New York-based Composing for the Screen Workshop, a mentorship program for emerging composers.

More than 100 other awards were presented to the composers of the past year’s highest-grossing movies and highest-rated programs in network, cable and streaming services. Among them were Ludwig Goransson (“Black Panther”), Tyler Bates (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”), Mark Mothersbaugh (“Thor: Ragnarok”), Silvestri (“Ready Player One”), Tyler (“The Mummy”) and Williams (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”).

Some 600 members of the film and TV music community attended the invitation-only, black-tie affair.