August 3, 2016

How Netflix’s ‘Beat Bugs’ creator scored so many Beatles tunes and got Sia and Eddie Vedder to sing

Sarah Rodman / LA Times

The Beatles are among the most protective artists in pop music when it comes to licensing their catalog for commercial use.

So when Netflix announced that its new animated children’s series, “Beat Bugs,” which begins streaming in 11-minute episodes on Wednesday, would not only feature Fab Four songs but more than a whopping 50 of them, people wondered how show creator Josh Wakely managed that musical miracle.

Turns out all he needed was love, and a lot of patience.

“I was wildly naive,” Wakely said. The Australian writer-director-producer had no idea that it would be such a long process — three years in total — to secure the rights to classic songs such as “Eleanor Rigby,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “Getting Better” and “Blackbird.”

Wakely said most potential backers loved his concept of a musical magical mystery tour of the backyard, full of mischief and life lessons, led by a quintet of human kid characters and their insect friends.

“And then I’d say, ‘All I need to do is get the rights to the Beatles’ songs’” Wakely recounted to reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour. “And they’d look at me like I was a little bit crazy; and I guess I was.”

Quitting,  he said in a separate interview, was not an option, however. “There were points where I certainly should’ve given up, and everyone was instructing me to give up, but I just could see so clearly what it could be that I just couldn’t let it go.”

His tenacity also led to an all-star roster of musicians who lend their voices to the Beatles songs heard in the series’ 26-episode first season, including Sia, the Shins,  late night “Carpool Karaoke” maestro James Corden, Regina Spektor and Chris Cornell of Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden, which seems fitting.

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder performs as Jasper, a grasshopper who takes the insects on a  “Magical Mystery Tour,” and Pink sings “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” as Lucy the dragonfly — a character with kaleidoscope eyes, naturally. The soundtrack will be released through Apple Music.

Vedder was, Wakely said, “a childhood hero of mine” and among many artists he feels fortunate to have worked with on the show. In fact, when Vedder returned his call, he wondered if he was being punked: “I was like, either it’s someone who is doing an extraordinarily good Eddie Vedder impersonation, or this is a great moment in my life.”

Wakely says the  three years to secure the music rights and another three to craft the show itself  were well worth the time.  He thinks that both parents who know the music and kids just learning it will be drawn  to the songs, whose appeal crosses generations.

“I think people will be talking about this music in the way they talk about Shakespeare in 400 years,” Wakely said.  “It’s so perfectly designed that it can be reinterpreted in this way.”

The show, whose first season’s 26 episodes are just now being seen by Netflix viewers, has already been approved for a second season, which will begin in November.

Wakely has yet to hear any feedback from surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, but he is hopeful “Beat Bugs” will find its way to them.

“They’re still such active artists,” Wakely pointed out. “So they are going on and doing their own thing, but I look forward to them engaging with it.”

One person already engaging with Wakely’s next project is Smokey Robinson, who is working with the animator on the tentatively titled “Motown,” which is built on the music of that vaunted label.

“He embraced it wholeheartedly,” the show creator said of Robinson. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer cottoned to Wakely’s vision of a young, shy kid from Detroit with the power to enter street murals and graffiti to see a different side of the world.

That project is in the early stages, said Wakely, but he is equally passionate about it: His first concert was Stevie Wonder and he honeymooned at the “Hitsville, U.S.A” Motown museum. In the winter.

“I craft the song and the story and then I think, ‘Who would be good for that? Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder or Pharrell?’ And then I’d go and approach them.”

Although both catalogs obviously have a finite number of songs, Wakely isn’t worried about running out of material.

“There are 310 [Beatles songs],” he said, with a smile. “So, yeah, I’ll be really old.”

‘Beat Bugs’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time starting Wednesday

Rating: TV-Y (appropriate for children of all ages)

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