The story of Thunderbird, a Purple Rain-inspired drama set in Minneapolis
A shot from the opening of the first episode
"Summer in Minneapolis. A killer on the prowl. A young woman's personal journey told in disco."
This is the tagline for Jesse Dvorak's new web series, Thunderbird. Its first episode premiered on YouTube through Carbon City Cinema last Thursday, and the series follows Micah, the lead singer for the neo-disco outfit Thunderbird, as she learns more about herself while navigating an imagined music scene during a Minneapolis summer.
"The music is a huge part of the inspiration and narrative," Dvorak said. He's had more than a little experience in the world of indie music, recording and touring with various bands -- mostly electronica in the vein of Moby -- for more than a decade before focusing on film. This shines through in the series' soundtrack, which grabs the viewer from the first scene.
"I have very broad music tastes, and as a musician I'd always say, 'I wanna do country, I wanna do a post punk, I wanna do all these styles,'" Dvorak says. "Film liberates me in that I can use different styles of music in any film."
Picking the music for Thunderbird was more important to the story than in most series. Since the central characters all perform in bands, matching their personalities to the songs they perform was very important.
So it's no surprise that Dvoark credits the Chromatics, a Portland-based disco-revival band with synth-pop tendencies who are know for their sparse yet chaotic sound, as a visual inspiration for the show's look.
"Nothing really specific," he says, "but they just sparked the imagination." The Chromatics eventually became the band behind Thunderbird, with almost all of the performances by the central band in the series backed by their songs.
Other music was chosen later, to fit with the theme of the story.
"I started with the theme of fear," Dvorak says. "Big fears like fear of death, but also everyday fear like talking to someone you don't know, or opening up to new people."
This subtle undercurrent of fears both big and small is there from the first scene of the first episode. We learn that a serial killer is on the loose in Minneapolis before ending up in the crowded Terminal Bar in Northeast, where we see Last Ring of Jupiter, one of the show's bands, performing "No Secrets" by Chris Millinchak, a subtly haunting dance song about the apprehension that comes before sharing your life with a new person.
It's also clear from this first shot that we're in Minneapolis in the summer -- and not just incidentally. From the beginning, the city was meant to be a key part of the series.
"When you watch Purple Rain," says Dvorak, who used the film almost as a template, "you can feel the Minneapolis of it. I loved that. I love settings as characters."
John Bennett, who plays Nero, the motorcycle-riding bad boy fronting the new wave synth-pop band Black Tie Affair (and a potential love interest for Micah), was also drawn to Minneapolis's central role in the production. He spent much of the summer exploring the city through the eyes of his character.
"I just spent a lot of the month of June and July biking around," he says. "I almost rediscovered Minneapolis, because my question wasn't where would John go to the bar or hang out, but where would Nero go to the bar, who would he hang out with?"
Nero, portrayed by John Bennett
Black Tie Affair performs "You Are You Are" by British synthpop group Le Cassette. Like most of their songs, it moves at a deliberate pace, most of the power coming from the deep and clean lyrical delivery rather than the simple backing track.
Bennett worked to capture the band's style in their dubbed performances of their music.
"Nero as a musical performer is stoic," he says. "He's very much about telling the story--all emotional energy is kind of hyper-focused. Some people are really grooving with their music, but Nero's about letting the words kind of just haunt."
Black Tie Affair has an intentionally different sound than most of the bands featured in the series.
"They're supposed to have a distinct flavor from the others," Dvorak says, "since Nero is sort of the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. I wanted to give him a different sound but still keeping continuity--they aren't gonna be a folk band, or anything like that."
Though Bennett has musical theatre experience, he's never been in a band or performed as a musician--that is, unless you count a high school sophomore talent show.
"We wrote a song called 'Seventh Grade Love Affair,'" he says. "We all came on stage wearing short-shorts, sports jerseys and sweatbands."
Micah, portrayed by Caroline Taylor-Johnson
Caroline Taylor-Johnson, who plays Micah, had a similar level of band experience before joining the series, though it was in a slightly less ridiculous setting.
"The most I've performed singing was open mics at Dunn Brothers," she says. The first episode of the series is called "Stage Fright," and ends with Micah abandoning a performance after hearing bad news from her brother. For this scene, Taylor-Johnson drew inspiration from her own feelings.
"Those performance scenes were really nerve-wracking," she says. "Believe it or not, I have incredible stage fright. Jesse is very supportive."
Like Bennett, Taylor-Johnson also spent time preparing for her performances by working to mirror the style of the songs she's performing. She spent a lot of time watching videos of the Chromatics and similar bands.
"There isn't a lot of movement," she says, "it's almost melancholy. A lot of it is in the face and the eyes and the attachment to the music. That's where I drew most of my inspiration.
Melancholy affect makes sense, given the character's background. Throughout the series, Micah is dealing with the fallout from her twin sister's death a few years before.
"She's still grieving, so singing and writing music are kind of a release for her," Taylor-Johnson says. "Over the series she's overcoming the grief and fear."
"It's really a coming of age story, more than anything else, of a mid-20s girl," Dvorak says. "It's about this character finding her voice and discovering who she is and what her impact on others is."
This all takes place through the lens of the music, and that's a major part of the discovery, even for the lead players in the series.
"The modern day disco isn't really the genre I would normally listen to," Taylor-Johnson says. "I'm more of a rock person. But being introduced to it now, I actually really like it."
Dvorak hopes that's true for many of the series viewers.
"I think it's a cool opportunity to cross-pollinate--if I can get the people who like my stuff to listen to this music, and vice versa, it would be a cool meeting of like-minded artists."
Check out music videos for songs from Thunderbird on page three!
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