With a Beatles soundtrack sung by rock royalty and high-quality animation never before seen on television, new children’s animated series Beat Bugs on Netflix has flown to the front of our queue
Screen time is a precious commodity in our house. My 2-year-old daughter might get to watch the occasional YouTube video or snippet of a sports game, but otherwise we try to keep the TV off while she’s around. However after recently interviewing Australian Josh Wakely, the creator, writer and director of new Netflix kids’ show Beat Bugs, I decided to try an experiment.
Some background: Beat Bugs isn’t just any animated kids show. It’s made waves the world over because it features the words and music of The Beatles. This obviously got my attention; any show that was able to get permission from a band that’s famously guarded about licensing its music must have been pretty special. One of the things that sets Beatles music apart, Wakely explained, are the simple melodies that appeal not just to popular music fans, but to children as well. Intrigued, I went home that very afternoon and started playing Beatles tunes for my toddler.
Sure enough, she loved them! Not every song; parts of Abbey Road and The White Album are maybe a bit too avant garde for her, but she actually loves a lot of Sgt. Pepper’s and much of the early stuff (her hands-down favourite at the moment is “Hello Goodbye”, which actually does have super toddler-friendly lyrics now that I really think about it).
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Wakely says he wants Beat Bugs to be “Uplifting and life-affirming stories filled with melody”: each 30-minute episode kicks off with the theme song “All You Need is Love” (certainly a message I have no problem teaching my daughter, who prefers to call it “The Love-Love Song”) and two mini-episodes that each feature an additional song that ties into the misadventures of the lovable gang of bug kids. In the episode I watched, for instance, one of the bugs got stuck in a jar (“Help!”) in the first part, while in the second Lucy the Sleep Fairy helped a super cute baby bug drift off to sleep and stave off nightmares (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” — another one of Maggie’s faves). The animation is simply gorgeous; Wakely didn’t just aim big with the music rights; he wanted to put Pixar-level animation on TV for the first time, too.
Further upping Beat Bugs’ coolness factor? Many of the 52 songs featured across the first 26 episodes are sung by some of the most iconic voices in rock music. P!nk belts out “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, Sia makes “Blackbird” a beautiful lullaby, and grunge rock hero (at least he was mine) Eddie Vedder has a rollicking good time with “Magical Mystery Tour”. I kind of can’t wait to make our way through more episodes so I can hear how guests as varied as Jennifer Hudson, Rod Stewart, Regina Spektor and Robbie Williams put their spin on an eclectic mix of hits and deep cuts.
We recently got the chance to chat with Josh – a father of a 3-year-old who divides his time between Sydney and Los Angeles – to find out more about how he brought this crazy idea to life and why he wanted to make a kids’ show. Anyone who can turn my child onto the Beatles (which I’ll sing along to any day, especially if it means not listening to “The Wheels on the Bus” for the 87th time) is a hero in my book!
What gave you the idea to create this show, and to make it a children’s show specifically?
I had an idea a few years ago and I would go around saying “I have this great show with the best melodies of all time, and I know children love melodies. Now all I have to do is get the Beatles’ rights!” [Laughs]
It took me three years to do that. There are SO many Beatles songs with simple melodies and themes that make sense for children: “All You Need is Love”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Hello Goodbye”… the list goes on and on.
I work across all genres and platforms, but I really liked the idea of creating television that’s groundbreaking. A lot of people say we’re in a “golden age of television” right now with shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men or Game of Thrones. I wanted to bring that golden age of storytelling to children as well.
Can you tell us a bit more about your decision to work with child psychologists to make sure topics were covered in an appropriate and respectful way?
Some children’s content can be really patronizing. We wanted to create a world where they felt loved.
We were constantly in dialogue about making shows that children felt safe and encouraged to watch, something that really inspired their imagination.
The challenge of the show – what sets it apart from many others – is that the characters have to work out solutions amongst themselves. There aren’t parents there to fix things.
It’s pretty ambitious to create a show featuring some of the most famous songs ever written! Did you have to get permission from the Beatles to use these songs? How did that process go?
Sony/ATV hold the publishing rights and are very protective of it. They’ve never given this level of rights before, it’s unprecedented.
There are 308 songs in the Beatles catalogue I could choose from to tell the stories and bring them to life. I’d show them the script, work on some animation, and we’d also consult with child psychologists to make sure it worked for children and families.
Overall we feature 50 different songs across the first two seasons (each episode has two songs).
What’s your favourite Beatles song?
It would be like if I had 52 children and had to choose one. Some of their hits like “Obla Di, Obla Da”, “Hey Jude”, and “I am the Walrus” are all perfect for this.
At the same time, lesser-known songs like “Dr. Robert”, or “Rain”, or “Say the Word” weren’t hits but were perfect for this genre.
When I began this, I loved them all, and every day there hasn’t been a moment where I haven’t been amazed by the depth of their genius and the power of their melodies.
Was it an easy sell convincing rockers like Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell and Sia to participate in this project?
So first I had the mission of securing the rights, and wanted to make sure the story could match the greatness of the songs. I also wanted to bring Pixar-level animation to television, which hadn’t done before.
I wrote Eddie Vedder a letter, and it was like writing a letter to Santa Claus. And then I got a phone call one day and it was a number from Seattle and all I could think was “I don’t know anyone from Seattle”…
And the first thing he said was actually what a lot of people have said: “This is the kind of thing I want to show my kids!” [Note that Josh does an impressive Eddie Vedder impression! –Ed.]
Working with Sia was amazing. She brings so much vulnerability and strength and childlike wonder to the song “Blackbird”. She is very, very, very selective about what she chooses to do. She loved having the chance to bring these songs to a new generation in a new way.
And Chris Cornell was just the coolest guy to work with. He just got it, right away, when I met up with him in Sydney. “Drive My Car” it’s so child-friendly. It’s really special.
What made you decide to partner with Netflix on this project? How has that compared to other productions you’ve worked on?
It was a no-brainer to work with Netflix. They have a lot of heart, and saw this show had a lot of heart. They so empowering and are very, very selective and ambitious about what they put on. This was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime event in entertainment.
And speaking as a parent, Netflix was truthfully what my child watched anyway. Somedays he woke up in the morning and we’d jump with joy that he wants to watch these shows [compared to a lot of other children’s programming out here]. Him having that choice and selection – while still have parental controls – was something I appreciated even before we approached them.
As a parent with a young son, when did you introduce him to Beatles’ songs? Does he have a favourite?
My son turned 3 almost the day the show came out. I secured the rights to the music six weeks after his birth; the process evolved sort of along with him.
One of the characters, Little Bug, says “This is aw-shum!”, and this line came directly from my son.
For favourite songs, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is definitely one of his favourites. He also loves to jump out of his room and say “I am the Walrus! Koo Koo Ka Ju!”
The other day I had a lovely moment when we were crossing the road and he said “I want to hold your hand”.
Thanks so much, Josh! The first 13 episodes of Beat Bugs are streaming now on Netflix, mama!