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July 25, 2016

Australian filmmaker turns The Beatles into the perfect children’s show soundtrack


Bernard Zuel / Sydney Morning Herald

Josh Wakely’s idea for a children’s animated series was heartfelt but mad. Impossible. It would require securing the rights to more than 300 songs by the Beatles, and then getting some famous contemporary singers to record those songs. And that was never going to happen.

Until it did.

Now Beat Bugs will air on Netflix around the world, and Channel 7TWO from Monday, a soundtrack album is out in August, and Wakely, a 35-year-old screenwriter and director from Newcastle, is still staggered.

“This has been like my life’s work, for want of a less pretentious term, for five or six years,” he said this week from the West Hollywood studio run by former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh, whose soundtrack work includes the massively popular children’s show Rugrats.

“I would go around pitching this series saying I’ve got this great idea for a children’s series and all I need to do is get the rights to the Beatles’ songs. Now I realise that I looked utterly crazy as I walked out of those rooms in Sydney and Hollywood.”

Three of those years involved Wakely convincing, ultimately, John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and Paul McCartney, to allow the songs of Lennon and McCartney to be used. Somehow he never lost faith.

“There was a point where I had been pursuing the rights for a year, then two years and then it was in the third year and it was suggested to me by my wife and people with more pragmatic minds perhaps I could create an animation separate from these Beatles rights,” said Wakely, whose production company, Grace, has offices in Sydney and Los Angeles.

“But it absolutely needed that. It was the celestial rocket fuel for the series.”

Beat Bugs, a story of five friends in a richly detailed and often gorgeous world of nature, is strong enough visually and in its writing to survive on its own, partly down to the show’s Vancouver-based animators, Atomic Cartoons, whose principals emerged from Pixar and George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.

But for Wakely, Beat Bugs had to be soundtracked by the Beatles because it had all started with him re-hearing All You Need Is Love, now the show’s theme song.

“I heard the chords and lyrics to All You Need Is Love and thought wouldn’t it be powerful to bring that to children and to bring that to animation,” he said. “From that seed the whole idea would grow. I thought it was something that would often be a platitude but it’s a simple but brilliant thing to teach anyone, especially young person.”

With a young son of his own, Wakely wanted to teach “that you can conquer anything with that idea and that drove me with enough passion to pursue this idea”.

It worked even better than he could have hoped beginning with fellow Novocastrian Daniel Johns, with whom he’d worked on a short film called My Mind’s Own Melody in 2011, signing on as musical director and arranger. Then one of his childhood heroes, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder agreed to sing Magical Mystery Tour, joining Sia (whose version of Blackbird Wakely waxes lyrical about), Pink and even British actor/writer and TV host James Corden on the soundtrack.

“The great thing about The Beatles, and I also think it applies to Queen, is that whatever moment you hear them in your life, you think everyone else is hearing them for the first time too,” said Corden, who named his son Max McCartney Corden after his favourite Beatle, in a statement. “That’s the quality of how timeless those songs are.”

Incidentally, while negotiating for the Beatles songs, Wakely was also working on another mad project, a drama series based on the songs of Bob Dylan. A project requiring access to more than 600 songs by the only songwriter to challenge the Lennon and McCartney for cultural ubiquity.

Impossible? That series now is in development for Amazon.