Director and music supervisor Ed Bailie on working with Dougal Wilson on a bona fide classic
John Lewis ads never fail to provoke a certain level of fervent excitement, much of which comes down to the commercial’s soundtrack. Big name examples from recent years have been Elbow’s cover of The Beatles’ ‘Golden Slumbers’ and Lily Allen’s version of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, originally by Keane. Its latest spot though, which was directed by Dougal Wilson and marked the first ad since the brand’s partnership rebrand with Waitrose - features one of the most famous and widely loved tunes ever - Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ - performed by a group of school kids in a performance reminiscent of the Jack Black film, School of Rock.
The company tasked with pulling off that feat - and many of John Lewis’ musical endeavours before it - is Leland Music. LBB’ Addison Capper chatted with Ed Bailie, director and music supervisor at Leland, to find out how they did it.
LBB> What were your initial thoughts when this job first came in?
Ed> When we first read the script we were inspired by the grand ambition of the production. Not only is this an indisputably iconic song to work with, but the whole concept of a larger-than-life school production put big smiles on our faces… It read like a challenge to pull off well, and we love bold ambitious projects.
LBB> Did you record the cover and then sync the film to it?
Ed> A bit of both. We recorded various elements with the vocal cast so they could mime on set to their own performances. Some additional instrumentation was added afterwards to allow for any tweaks in the edit and to best suit the production schedule.
LBB> The song is meant to be imperfect - it’s a bunch of kids performing it in a school! What’s that like for you as the music company, to get the right balance or cute but also decent?
Ed> Balance was key here. We were aiming for a spectacular but still somewhat believable performance. Dougal Wilson and the team didn’t want a pitch perfect broadway rendition of the song, so this wasn’t meant to be a squeaky clean or overly polished performance.
That actually takes more work than it sounds like. Playing with which kids’ voices should cut through the mix, how complex or simple the accompanying musical arrangement should be, resisting the studio urge to tune everything perfectly. Our producer Steve McLaughlin and arranger Ilan Eshkeri did a tremendous job striking that balance.
LBB> Did any of the kids in the film actually perform musically?
Ed> All of our core band are the onscreen cast (guitars, bass, piano, drums, etc.), as are the singers. In fact we recorded around 50 kids for this production over just two recording dates - it was quite a marathon.
LBB> Were you there on set to direct the kids’ vocals? How was that and what were the biggest challenges?
Ed> We had an on-set team helping with direction of the instrumentalists (strings predominantly, which can be quite exposing visually if not bowing in time with the music), but Dougal is such a strong musical mind himself, he was totally on top of what he wanted visually from the cast both dramatically and musically.
LBB> What kind of pressure did you feel to pay justice to the original, but also give this version its own edge?
Ed> The original ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a six-minute epic. Cutting this classic down to two minutes without it feeling clunky / throwing the audience off was a real challenge, which was achieved with a mix of Dougal’s vision for the film’s narrative and Steve’s studio work to make the musical transitions smooth and musically pleasing. The main pressure was finding the creative balance between believability and being spectacular.
LBB> What kind of challenges come with licensing a song as big as Bohemian Rhapsody?
Ed> Our cast’s version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ contains a few lyric changes (“Mama, just killed a martian” and “Miss Millar” instead of “Bismillah”) plus the use of Queen image rights (adopting various elements from the original Bohemian Rhapsody music video - the illuminated intro quartet for example - and nods to the band members themselves - a cheeky Freddie Mercury style moustache and Brian May wig).
All this required approval from Queen and Freddie’s publisher Sony/ATV. While somewhat daunting as their say would be final and make or break what the team wanted to achieve with this film, Queen were wonderfully supportive - going as far as to share the film on their socials when it launched, proposing additional activity between John Lewis and 20th Century Fox in the run up to their ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ biopic release, and above all approving our re-record.
LBB> What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Ed> Alongside the tricky instrumental parts that our pianist, guitarist, bassist and drummer cast needed to learn, the original song has such complex vocal harmonies, sung by adults across broad vocal ranges. We had a cast of kids around 10-12 years old who naturally cannot hit those notes, so re-arranging the song to work with their voices while still feeling epic and powerful was quite a hurdle. We got there, and everyone involved was so proud of the cast’s performances and overall musical accomplishment.