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July 27, 2016

Beetles Do Beatles: Music Coup for an Animated Netflix Show

Animation / News

If Josh Wakely was feeling a little fried, it was understandable: He had quickly become one of the busiest young writers and producers in television — with a little help from the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Motown.

Jet-lagged from repeated trips between New York, Los Angeles and his native Australia, Mr. Wakely, 35, sported a dark stubble and had an errant shirt button undone one afternoon last week at his publicist’s office in Lower Manhattan. But he excitedly tripped over his own syllables as he talked about his three new shows, each of which uses classic pop songs as inspiration, raw material and organizing theme.

“Beat Bugs,” an animated children’s series on Netflix based on Beatles songs, begins its first season on Aug. 3. The show features performances of songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Help!” by Eddie Vedder, Pink and Regina Spektor.

Also on the way, with air dates yet to be set, are two other shows Mr. Wakely created: “Time Out of Mind,” a dark drama for Amazon with characters based on songs by Mr. Dylan; and another animated show for Netflix, still untitled, that makes use of the Motown catalog. Smokey Robinson is its executive music producer.

As Mr. Wakely described it, his template began with “Beat Bugs,” which he conceived of as a way to extend the current “golden age of television” into children’s programming. He created the show and also has directing, writing and producing credits.

“I realized that these extraordinary melodies would make sense for children, but also the full level of imagination and visual imagery that the Beatles had in their songs,” he said. “What is it to go into a strawberry field forever? What would it be like to actually be inside that yellow submarine?”

So far, the buzz around Mr. Wakely’s shows has centered on the licensing deals he struck to draw on iconic — and closely guarded — song collections in unusually extensive ways. For each show, Mr. Wakely and his team have access to vast catalogs not only for musical performances but also for plot devices and characters, extending the reach of the shows into the songs’ most fundamental elements.

Mr. Wakely said he chose the music catalogs partly for their storytelling potential, but beyond “Beat Bugs” he provided scant details. “Time Out of Mind,” he said, would feature characters from Mr. Dylan’s songs “colliding” in 1960s America. The Motown show follows an 8-year-old African-American boy named Ben who discovers magical powers that let him bring graffiti to life.

“Banksy for children as done by Pixar,” Mr. Wakely said of the Motown show. “That was my pitch.”

Music licensing in film and television is nothing new, and the jukebox musical has been a Broadway standby for years. (For instance, “Motown: The Musical” debuted on Broadway in 2013.) But the kind of rights that Mr. Wakely sought are rarely granted, and the deals were all the more remarkable given his relative inexperience. He had just a handful of credits to his name as a writer and director when he began the process half a decade ago. Securing rights to the Beatles works — including more than 250 songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney — took three years; the deal is estimated at nearly $10 million.

“I had no idea how complicated or how ambitious an idea it was,” Mr. Wakely said. “I’m glad I was so naïve, because I wouldn’t have pursued it otherwise.”

Mr. Wakely grew up in Newcastle, Australia, an industrial hub north of Sydney. He said he had been struggling for years as a screenwriter, working on scripts that often went nowhere, before he decided to set up his own production house, Grace: A Storytelling Company.

Among his earlier work was “My Mind’s Own Melody,” a short musical film in 2012 in which he worked with Daniel Johns of the Australian rock band Silverchair. Yet Mr. Wakely remained well below the radar of the Hollywood press until making the Beatles deal two years ago for “Beat Bugs,” which features five childlike insects living in the tall grass of an overgrown backyard who learn a valuable life lesson — and a catchy Beatles tune — in each 11-minute episode.

Like the most enduring animation series, the writing in “Beat Bugs” is crafted to appeal to children as well as to their parents, with plenty of allusions to lyrics. In the “Help!” episode, Jay, a headstrong beetle, gets trapped in a glass jar and needs his friends to come to his rescue.

“I thought you never needed anybody’s help in any way,” says Kumi, a ladybug.

“I’m sorry,” Jay replies, “but those days are gone, and now I’ve changed my mind.”

For Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which represents both the Beatles and Motown songwriting catalogs, the shows are a way to reach a generation of very young potential listeners. Still, Sony/ATV was typically cautious in approving the deal for “Beat Bugs.”

“As a company, we say no more than we say yes,” said Damian Trotter, managing director of Sony/ATV in Australia, who said he has known Mr. Wakely since the beginning of his career and encouraged him to develop ideas for projects using music. After an initial meeting, Mr. Wakely began to sketch out “Beat Bugs” in detail, and Mr. Trotter said the result impressed Sony/ATV enough to give the green light.

“He demonstrated the power of a great idea,” Mr. Trotter said. (Sony/ATV also controls the Motown catalog, and administers Mr. Dylan’s songs in Australia; the Beatles themselves were not involved in the “Beat Bugs” deal.)

Mr. Wakely, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Sydney, said at the time the Beatles deal was finally signed in January 2014, his funds were nearly exhausted. He could afford just six weeks of rent in Los Angeles and was prepared to return to Australia. “I would say to my wife, ‘I don’t want to be the guy that nearly got the Beatles rights,’” he said.

On Wednesday, Netflix announced that “Beat Bugs” had been confirmed for a second season, to begin Nov. 18, with Beatles songs to be sung by Jennifer Hudson, Rod Stewart and Tori Kelly, among others. Mr. Wakely has his hands full, but he said he was already thinking of more music-focused shows.

“It feels like beautifully uncharted territory,” he said.