Netflix Makes 'Motown Magic' with Animated Series

Netflix on Nov. 20 will premiere a new animated series, Motown Magic, which looks to introduce iconic songs from the Detroit-based R&B music company to a new generation viewers.

The series, which follows a young boy who uses is magic paintbrush to bring to life the street art decorating his city, will feature classic Motown hits in each episode to help inform the story line.

Emmy-winning producer Josh Wakely, who created Netflix’s animated series Beat Bugs – inspired by the music of the Beatles -- serves as creator and executive producer of Motown Magic, with Motown legend Smokey Robinson serving as executive music producer.

I recently spoke to Wakely about the origins of Motown Magic along with his mission to keep classic songs alive for future generations. An edited version of the interview appears below.

What was the appeal for you of creating an animated, kids-targeted series around the Motown library of songs?

Josh Wakely

Josh Wakely

Motown has always held a special place for me as it has for the world. When I was eight years old Stevie Wonder came to Australia, and my mom took me to his concert. I remember it being the most celestial and amazing music ever, and I’ve never really changed that point of view. Even before I did the show Beat Bugs on Netflix I wanted to do something around the Motown catalog. I was convinced it was the most extraordinary music formed for families because it was melodically engaging enough for the children’s mind, but also had some often-challenging social messages.

How do you translate the Motown sound to a new generation of viewers who may not ever heard of Motown?

I think 100 years from now people will still be talking about the fact that [Motown] made that many number ones in a fairly condensed period of time, and the architecture of the songs are so advanced. I think this is my small part in imparting that to a younger generation. The music is still perfect, so we’re doing [Motown Magic] to make it more accessible to a modern era. We have the latest animation techniques and technologies, so I thought the alchemy of bringing this timeless music from the 60’s with cutting edge animation would be a good combination for viewers. Everybody knows that Motown music is good, but I don’t think they realize that in 100 years a Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder or Smokey Robinson song is going to sound just as amazing as it did in the 1960s. Each episode uses the narrative of an iconic Motown song, which serves as the platform and inspiration for the story.

What role does Smokey Robinson play in the development of the series, and how was it to work with him on the project?

Smokey Robinson and Josh Wakely

Smokey Robinson and Josh Wakely

Working with him was the best thing ever! There would be days when we were working on the show, and Smokey would turn to me and say “how do you want to chart this song?’ In what world does Smokey Robinson ask me that question? He was a great collaborator – I wouldn’t have done it unless I had his blessing. I gave him the first couple of scripts and he really loved it.

Along with Motown Magic, Beat Bugs returned to Netflix this month for its third season. Are you surprised by the success of that show?

I was relieved by it (laughs). After three years of securing the rights and three years of working on it I was glad to see it launch. I remember 48 hours before it came out it suddenly occurred to me that it might not be a success, but now that it has had some success it's not my show anymore; it's the audience’s show. To see people talking about it; to see people dressing up as the characters for Halloween; to see toys based on the show in stores; and to see the live shows is both energizing and exciting. With Beat Bugs and with Motown Magic I owe a lot to the fact that the music [in the shows] is some of the best music of all time, and that people want that in their lives.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.