Gorillaz guyz provide the Olympic Monkey on BBC’s back
Thankfully Sigur Rós have been given some time off this Olympic Games. Over the past few years it has almost been a legal requirement to use their music over every single sports montage going, from tennis to hurley to motorsports.
For its Olympics coverage, the BBC has gone for something completely different: music inspired by a badly dubbed Japanese TV series from the 1970s, which in turn was based on an impenetrable 16th-century Chinese novel. It doesn’t sound promising, but for many, this will be the summer of Monkey.
The story behind the BBC’s Olympic music began with a “circus opera” called Monkey: Journey to the West, which was the stage adaptation of a Chinese novel. Created by Blur’s Damon Albarn and the artist Jamie Hewlitt (both from Gorillaz), Monkey has been playing in theatres around the world to acclaim since 2007.
Uniquely for an entertainment spectacle, Monkey also has a political undertow. Many of the venues staging the piece also ran concurrent workshops that introduced spectators to the many aspects of Chinese culture, music and dance. Given that China still has some questionable political practices, this was an attempt to understand the more edifying aspects of the superpower’s remarkable resources.
Since Monkey’s Chinese origins fitted its brief for Beijing, the BBC contacted Albarn and Hewlitt with a view to the pair creating a specially commissioned piece based on their work, which the Beeb would use as the musical centre point of its Olympic coverage. Their beautifully produced two-minute video features on all BBC TV, radio, web and mobile coverage of the Games. The clip is also being heavily pushed on sites such as Facebook, Bebo and the corporation’s YouTube channel.
The video nods at ancient Chinese culture as well as contemporary youth culture, and reintroduces the notion of sport as a participatory rather than competitive event. Musically, it comes across like a very excitable Steve Reich let loose in an electro sweet shop; visually, it’s quite unsporty, with not that many Olympic references – though the characters do descend into the Bird’s Nest stadium at the end.
According to the BBC, reaction to the video thus far has eclipsed that of any of its other sports montages. Some viewers have complained of the “techno beats” and the fact that it looks like a “child’s scary dream” (which it does), but most salute it for being just the right side of avant garde. And the fact that it doesn’t feature a (most probably) drug-addled athlete holding up an Olympic medal has found favour with those who believe the whole sporting event has now been irreversibly debased by pharmaceuticals and the muscle-flexing of giant sportswear companies.
Perhaps the most interesting reaction is from viewers in their mid- to late-30s who talk about the “warm, nostalgic glow” they get from watching the video.
To a certain TV generation, Monkey/Saiyûki was the most exotic and enigmatic programme they had ever seen. The show, which premiered in Japan in 1978 and the UK in 1979, centred on an eponymous hero (the king of a monkey tribe) who had to learn a valuable lesson in humility from a cloud-dwelling Buddha deity. After which, he embarks on a journey to India in search of enlightenment – or something equally rarefied. It was sometimes difficult to decipher.
In an era when TV programmes aimed at early-to mid-adolescents now seem to be merely a point-ofentry platform on which to build a brand, which is then merchandised to death and commercialised to the point of absurdity, Monkey had no such tacky add-ons. And one of its most endearing features was how it solved moral conundrums by referencing Buddhist and Taoist philosophies.
Which is just another good reason why Monkey’s moment in the Olympic sun is timely and welcome. And if you’ve yet to see the footage, you’ll find it at http://news.bbc.co. uk/sport2/hi/olympics/monkey.
The BBC Monkey (left) and stars of the original TV series