Prince is having an afterlife the opposite of most rock stars. Where the years after death seems to bring our gods down to human size, the more stories I hear about Prince, the more I am convinced he was either beyond human or one of the very few constantly working at maximum potential. But not only that, he also helped others realize their own potential, especially members of his touring band.
I hope that’s your takeaway after having watched not just this mini-doc of his 2007 Super Bowl HalfTime show, but reading this thoroughly entertaining oral history of the event from The Ringer. Even if football is not your thing, and you consider the halftime show to be cheesy, this one year was not. Prince considered it one of his crowning achievements, and it was going to be the end point of the memoirs he planned to write.
Half-time shows had traditionally been the venue for marching bands and color guard, but by the 1990s they had turned into Hollywood productions, with pop stars and dancers. However, they had also been dealt a blow with Nipplegate, when Justin Timberlake ripped open Janet Jackson’s corset and exposed a metal pastie in 2004. Middle America reeled, people thought of the children, the FCC levied some fines, and the NFL went into defensive mode, programming the kind of Boomer-safe artists that would please as many people as possible: The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. (I mean, all amazing artists, mind you. Just nothing dangerous.)
Prince was different. He wasn’t going to do this like an aging rock star, just come on out and play the hits. He could have done and he certainly had the back catalog to do so. Instead, he put together a show that could stand on its own, a mix of his hits and a wild selection of cover versions: Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, “Proud Mary”, Hendrix/Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, and the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You.”
The day of the Super Bowl in Miami it rained, Florida-style. Monsoon weather. Yet, Prince and his band went ahead, defying the elements. The dancers—Maya and Nancy McClean—put grips on their high heel boots so as not to slip on the glass-like stage, formed in the shape of Prince’s “symbol”. There was an understandable panic: would somebody be electrocuted? Would this be Prince’s last concert?
But no. Prince seemed to transcend the elements. Ruth Arzate, Prince’s personal assistant/manager asked the musician’s hairstylist: “Am I hallucinating or is there no rain on him?” You could see a couple of droplets on his shoulder. And we’re looking and she’s like, “It just looks like a fine mist on his face.””
Prince ended the concert with “Purple Rain,” which you can see above, singing *in the rain* and then busting out a solo for the ages behind billowing fabric as a shadow, wielding that symbol guitar like a glorious phallus.
Halftime show production designer Bruce Rogers says it best:
“To me, it’s about one guy in the middle of a hundred thousand people and a hundred million people on television, and it’s your moment to be Prince at the Super Bowl and Mother Nature is dropping thousands and thousands of gallons of rain. I always thought how cool the guy is to rise up and just get stormed upon, and just bring what he brought. That was so special.”
There are several takeaways from the Ringer piece: how Prince would glide around on custom-made Heelys. How he would perform in meetings with a full band instead of just playing a CD. How when a cable accidentally got run over before the show a roadie literally held the stripped cable together for 20 or so minutes, running the risk of electrocution, to keep the show going. But my favorite takeaway is this quote, from Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro: “He took this massively overscaled event and just sort of bent it to his will.”
Super Bowl XLI became a Prince concert with a football game on either side of it, and that’s because he made it so.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.