Josh Wakely remembers pitch meetings where he'd go and meet with TV executives and say, "I have the best idea for a kids' show, I know how to deliver it, I know how to write it, it's going to feature great melodies, 'cause children love melodies, and parents will love watching it with their kids. It's going to be really high end animation." He sits back in his chair, a large, leather-bound affair in a boardroom of Sydney's Channel 7 offices, and smiles. "And then I'd be like, ‘All I have to do is get the Beatles' rights.' And then the room would go quiet. And they were sure they were talking to a crazy person."
There were times over the past seven years where Wakely must have wondered if he was indeed crazy. After coming up with the idea of making an animated show for children that melded Pixar production quality with storylines inspired by Beatles songs – and, crucially, featuring Beatles music – the Newcastle-born filmmaker spent three years chasing the rights to the Fab Four's catalogue; rights, he says, that had "never been given before", despite some of the world's biggest directors going after them.
Having previously worked with Daniel Johns on his 2011 short film My Mind's Own Melody, the director turned to the former Silverchair frontman to help adapt the Beatles' songs and score test animation as proof of concept. "Eventually," he says, "there was a magic day and the rights were mine. I remember thinking, ‘Now I've got to get it right.' So it's been another three years of seven-day weeks."
After securing the resources and distribution power of Netflix globally (the show is airing in Australia on 7TWO), Wakely set about scouring the world for the best animators and tasked them with bringing to life this show about "five lovable bugs, all of whom are different and learn to get along, have adventures, embrace each other's weaknesses, talents and strengths and learn that all you need is love. That is the core idea.
"These songs have extraordinary stories threaded throughout them," he adds. "What is it like to get lost in a strawberry field forever? Or to dive down underneath the water in a yellow submarine, or who is Eleanor Rigby? And if a children's bicycle wheel was left in the garden, could [the bugs] turn it into a Ferris wheel, which is a 'Ticket To Ride'?"
For Johns, who was Musical Director for the whole project – other notable Australian producers involved include François Tétaz (Gotye) and Joel Little (Lorde) – the idea of working with the catalogue was terrifying. "It was scary as fuck," he laughs from LA. "[The Beatles are] my favourite band in the history of music, and I had to interpret [their songs]. And further than that I couldn't do it on my own terms. One of the rules was you have to really pay attention to the structure and pop and chords and melodies. My natural inclination was to go crazy."
With each episode based around a particular song, Wakely had a whiteboard in his office on which he wrote a wish-list of artists he felt could sing them in the appropriate manner. "Magical Mystery Tour", for example, needed "someone who's got a huge amount of heart, but also has a real, down to earth showman" quality, so he approached Eddie Vedder. The Pearl Jam frontman called Wakely after the director sent him a handwritten letter.
"He was like, 'Hey, man, this has got a lot of heart, let's do this. I watch a lot of shows with my kids, I want to do something that we want to watch together.'" Other high profile artists involved include Sia (who performs "Blackbird"), the Lumineers ("Honey Pie"), Robbie Williams ("Good Day Sunshine"), P!nk ("Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"), James Corden ("I'm a Loser") and the Shins ("The Word").
Though Wakely wasn't present for many of the artists' recording sessions – the music was created in Australia and sent to whichever part of the world they were located in – he says he'll never forget sending the arrangement for "Blackbird" to Sia at 5.30 in the morning, after which he crashed out, exhausted. When he woke seven hours later, her finished track was in his inbox. "It's a truly breathtaking version," he says. "I believe, post-Beatles, it could prove to be quite definitive."
The show debuted in Australia last month and will be broadcast in 26 languages across 190 countries. A soundtrack featuring all the guest vocalists is out now. For Wakely – who has also secured the rights to Bob Dylan's catalogue, and is developing a gritty drama for Amazon based around his songs – it's the culmination of seven years' hard work.
"This experience was like climbing Everest and then someone was like, ‘Now you've got to climb K2 and Mount Kilimanjaro. And then go up Everest again.'"
From issue #778, available now.
'Beat Bugs' is now showing in Australia on Channel Seven. Stream the current episodes via Yahoo7.