Ad of the Week: BBC Music, God Only Knows

Airing for the first time this evening is a new brand film for BBC Music, which sees 27 music stars from Brian Wilson to Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams to Lorde perform a unique version of The Beach Boys’ classic song God Only Knows. The film was two years in the making: we talk to the ad agency, Karmarama, about how it was done…

Airing for the first time this evening is a new brand film for BBC Music, which sees 27 music stars from Brian Wilson to Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams to Lorde perform a unique version of The Beach Boys’ classic song God Only Knows. The film was two years in the making: we talk to the ad agency, Karmarama, about how it was done…

Created to promote the work of BBC Music, the film will run across all BBC channels. It features each musician performing just one line from the song and is set in the Alexandra Palace Theatre in London, which was the location for the first ever BBC broadcast, over 90 years ago. At its opening, the theatre seems to be disused and decaying, yet as the track builds, the theatrical space becomes a fantastical world featuring a tropical rainforest, a tiger, birds, butterflies and giant bubbles.

The version of God Only Knows will be released as a single, with all profits going to Children In Need. In this, the project draws inevitable comparisons with the BBC’s version of Perfect Day, released in 1997, though this film is significantly more ambitious, both in its production but also in the audience it will reach, which is estimated at 50 million people.

Stills from the finished film

“The brief was to show the BBC’s unique contribution to the world of music,” says Sam Walker, ECD at Karmarama. “It’s not just a platform and curator but it also supports and develops new talent, and pushes the boundaries. It also plays music that wouldn’t be represented anywhere else if they didn’t. It’s basically a love letter to music from the BBC. And of course all proceeds from the single go to Children In Need.”

Karmarama began working on the project two years ago. The original concept was based on an orchestral version of Iron Maiden’s Phantom of the Opera, and didn’t feature any major stars but slowly the idea grew in scope and the team realised the song needed to change. “There were surprisingly few songs to choose from,” continues Walker. “We got it down to about six, including a couple of Kinks tracks, a Beatles track and a couple of David Bowie tracks. We were aiming for something that would appeal to as many people as possible so hopefully we chose well.

“It was a bit intimidating picking what is regularly listed as one of the five best songs ever written. So if we were going to go for it we wanted to try and do something that was distinct from the original, a bold new version but that still respected its original structure. People feel very protective of classic songs so it’s definitely a risk going anywhere near it. We set on the idea of starting very delicately with the celeste and building to a huge orchestral finish. [Producer] Ethan Johns came on board and did a brilliant arrangement of the song. The first time we heard the 80-piece orchestra playing what he’d written was an exciting moment. It sounded great with just the orchestra playing. Once the base was done we added more and more layers of instruments and voices, electric guitars, drums and even a harmonica from Stevie Wonder.”

Due to the complex nature of securing the stars, the development of the film was unusual. “It was a bit of a strange process, we knew we were starting a journey but we didn’t quite know where it was going to end up,” explains Walker. “Only some artists recorded the whole song, most only recorded one line and a chorus line. Because the particular line they sang dictated where they appeared in the film visually, we had to lock their position. Once an artist had recorded a particular line that was where they had to go even if another artist came along wanting to sing that line. Once Pharrell had sung his opening line then Pharrell was always going to open the film no matter who came along after that.”

Images from the shoot

As well as the difficulty of securing so many musicians, the team added the extra complication of constructing a narrative to bring them all together visually. Just filming the talent took over 18 months to complete, and then the project became a massive post-production job, which was performed by The Mill. “We could have made it a lot easier for ourselves by just filming everyone on green screen with no narrative, but right from the start we had the bigger story of the orchestra and the theatre coming to life that we wanted to tell,” says Walker. “But beyond that we aimed to give everyone their moment within the bigger picture. Yes, they had to fit in the narrative but also we wanted each person to have a special scene. So it was almost like writing a mini music video treatment for each and every star. The lighting then had to be appropriate for where they featured in the film, more moody and orchestral at the start, brighter and sunnier in the second third and magical in the third section in the cloudscape.

“The stars were brilliant and it’s incredible that everyone agreed to do it,” he continues. “The main thing was making sure they were happy with the scene we’d written for them. Obviously they’ve all got their own individual styles, so frequently we’d write something and then go back and forth both on costume and action until we and they were happy. It was also quite pressurised as we’d often only have a short amount of time between them recording their line to shooting their scene and so the lighting would need to be decided very quickly depending on where they appeared in the narrative.”

As well as major stars such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams et al, the film includes more niche figures such as opera star Danielle De Niese and Martin James Bartlett, the BBC’s young musician of the year. The intention was to show the wide diversity of BBC Music, and also appeal to all musical tastes. “It’s an almost impossible task,” says Walker, “but we tried to cover as wide a range as possible and hopefully there’s someone in there for everyone.”

Stills from the finished film

Agency: Karmarama
Creative directors: Sam Walker, Joe De Souza
Director: Francois Rousselet
Production company: Red Bee
Editor: Amanda James, Final Cut
Post production: The Mill
Sound design: Munzie Thind, GCRS

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