TV Projects Tap Into Beatles, Motown and Dylan Music Catalogues

Josh Wakely
Courtesy of GRACE a Storytelling Company

Eight years ago, Australian writer-director-producer Josh Wakely began pitching Sony/ATV, the music publishing company that administers the rights to the songs of the Beatles, on his passion project: an animated children’s television series plotted around lyrics from the Fab Four. On Aug. 3, Netflix will begin streaming “Beat Bugs,” the original series Wakely wrote, directed, and produced through his company Grace, along with the TV and movie production group Thunderbird and Beyond Screen ProdLast week at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, Netflix said that a second season will premiere Nov. 18.

Also at TCA, Netflix announced that Wakely will direct, produce, and showrun an animated children’s series based on the legendary Motown catalog, with Smokey Robinson as executive music producer. Inspired by Detroit’s soul music legacy, the as-yet-unnamed show follows a boy named Ben alongside a cast of “enchanting street art characters.” Each episode will include covers of songs by Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, and Stevie Wonder.

And Wakely has yet a third project in the works: “Time Out of Mind,” an hourlong drama inspired by Bob Dylan’s 600-plus-song archive. In development for Amazon Studios and Lionsgate TV, the series scored unprecedented rights to the catalog on the strength of Wakely’s unique vision for the material.

“Beat Bugs,” about a quintet of insect kids living in a suburban backyard, incorporates covers of songs from the Lennon/McCartney Northern Songs catalog performed by hitmakers such as Eddie Vedder, Sia, Aloe Blacc, the Shins, Rod Stewart, and Pink. Season two will feature Stewart, Jennifer Hudson, and Chris Cornell, among others.

Damien Trotter, managing director of Sony/ATV, says Wakely’s kids-skewing pitch fit into the company’s mandate to keep the Beatles “relevant for the next generation.” Each of the 26 11-minute episodes of “Beat Bugs” is structured around one song; for example, the 1965 hit “Help!” involves a character getting rescued from a jam jar.

Trotter acknowledges that entrusting an unproven showrunner was “a leap of faith.” Wakely — just 27 when he first approached Sony/ATV, and possessed of only a handful of short films and Down Under TV credits — had little background in animation and less standing in Hollywood. (His move was even bolder considering Sony/ATV’s reputation as a picky licensor, notorious for having charged Lionsgate $250,000 for the rights to just one Beatles song for use on “Mad Men.”)

Classic Tracks
Smokey Robinson
The legend will exec-produce the Motown project.
‘Beat Bugs’
Beatles covers in season one include Eddie Vedder’s “Magical Mystery Tour” and James Corden’s “I’m a Loser.”
‘Time Out of Mind’
based project will dramatize characters from the folk icon’s songs.

“While it’s true his credits are pretty thin on the ground, I had faith Josh was the guy who could pull this off,” Trotter says. “It shows you the power of the idea. The writing and imagination were incredible.”

For the richly orchestrated Beatles covers, Wakely partnered with Universal Music. Pearl Jam’s Vedder was at the top of his wish list; Wakely reached out to him with a personal letter. “It was like writing to Santa Claus,” Wakely recalls. “I told him why his music mattered in the working-class town where I grew up in Australia, why I would really want him to do this. He called me back and said, ‘This series has heart.’  ”

Vedder’s participation helped attract other top-tier talent. Republic Records/Universal this month will release the “Beat Bugs” soundtrack exclusively via Apple Music.

For “Time Out of Mind,” Wakely approached Dylan’s longtime business manager, Jeff Rosen, with a proposal for a show based around the folk icon’s songbook. “There are extraordinary characters in there: the gangster Joey Gallo, Hurricane Carter, Jeffrey Jones. Who was Maggie from ‘Maggie’s Farm’?” Wakely asks. “Having them colliding with each other to create deep, gritty drama in a tumultuous time in American history connects in some ways with where the country finds itself now.”

Wakely never loses perspective on his role as a keeper of the flame, reinterpreting classics for a new generation. “I’ve always felt a responsibility surrounding these extraordinary catalogs,” he says. “I want to execute them as perfectly as I can.”