Go­ril­laz guyz pro­vide the Olympic Mon­key on BBC’s back

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

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

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