The NFL’s biggest game returns to its Los Angeles roots Sunday as Super Bowl LVI brings the nomadic title game back to its birthplace for the first time this century.
Southern California is where Super Bowl I was played in January 1967 and the locale’s mix of media partnerships, celebrity culture, ideal weather, and sheer market size made it a frequent favorite of the NFL. In fact, Southern California went on to host nine of the first 32 Super Bowls. Then everything changed. The Rams relocated to St. Louis, where they would stay for 21 years (and win the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history) and L.A. was effectively erased from the NFL map. Two dozen consecutive Super Bowls have been played without any California love.
Then, in 2016, the Rams began the next episode in their franchise’s well-traveled history by returning to their former West Coast turf. They aim to win their first Super Bowl as a West Coast franchise on Sunday when they represent the NFC against the Cincinnati Bengals of the AFC. The Rams will have the advantage of playing on familiar ground. That’s because Super Bowl LVI is also a showcase moment for the team’s sleek new Inglewood venue, the $5 billion digital domain called SoFi Stadium.
The state-of-the-art facility should really shine during the Pepsi Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show, which is stacked with homegrown triumvirate of hip-hop titans: Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar from Compton and Snoop Dogg from Long Beach. They will be joined by two distinguished out-of-towners who travel well: Eminem, the pride of Detroit, and Mary J. Blige, the Hip-Hop Soul Queen of Yonkers, N.Y. It will be the first Super Bowl halftime production that is fully a hip-hop experience, too, which Dre this week described as a long overdue acknowledgement of “the most popular music in the world today.”
The halftime show will be produced by Jesse Collins, Jay-Z, and Roc Nation. Hamish Hamilton will direct.
Dre’s ensemble might be even more impressive by the time they reach the stage – the breakbeat maestro hinted that there might be a surprise addition to line-up (I’d guess Ice Cube, to set the stage for a partial N.W.A revival). At the press conference Dre, Snoop, and Blige were asked what past Super Bowl halftime performance they admired, and they immediately reached a consensus – Prince (2007), all three agreed, would be at the very top of the list or close to it.
(I’d also add U2 (2002), Beyonce (2013), and Paul McCartney (2005) as three more Super Bowl halftime shows that distinguished themselves.)
The SoFi intermission concert on Sunday will also be measured against the halftime production that made history when the Super Bowl made it its last visit to the L.A. area. It was Super Bowl XXVII, on January 31, 1993, at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
The audacious idea of shoehorning a big-name concert extravaganza into a ballgame intermission is impractical, risky, and distracting. It’s become a familiar tradition for the Super Bowl but that wasn’t the case when Michael Jackson rocked the Rose Bowl. Troy Aikman of the victorious Dallas Cowboys took home MVP honors that year but the biggest winner to step on the field that was the moonwalking King of Pop himself.
The tradition started in Pasadena that Sunday and the bar was set high as far as spectacle. Body doubles, stage visual effects, and pyro were all part of the show, as were 3,500 local children enlisted as a mega-choir to sing back-up for Jackson on We are the World and Heal the World. The elaborate production had a lot of moving parts but, at the beginning, Jackson wasn’t one of them. The performance began with Jackson standing like a statue for no obvious reason.
Once the music started, however, the fans loved the performance. It was a colossal moment in live broadcasting and remains the most-watched halftime in the game’s 55-year broadcast history with 133.4 million viewers. It was a peak moment for Jackson. Seven months later, the pop star’s career took a turn with accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior.
At that same game, Garth Brooks sang the National Anthem. The coin toss that afternoon was handled by O.J. Simpson.
The L.A. area hasn’t hosted a Super Bowl since that January 1993 contest. A month before that game, Dre released his solo debut album, The Chronic, which became a landmark release in hip-hop history. This year marks the 30th anniversary of that album. Dre will be celebrating that anniversary during the halftime performance, no doubt, and the rap star also has a birthday coming up on Feb. 18. He will be 57 years old.
Another music note with a Super Bowl confluence: On January 15, 1967, at the L.A. Coliseum, the Green Bay Packers vanquished the Kansas City Chiefs. The game would be later known as Super Bowl I. (The Super nickname was cooked up in 1969 and applied retroactively.) It was the only Super Bowl to air on two networks, both NBC (the AFL broadcast partner) and CBS (which aired NFL games). CBS viewers who kept watching into the network’s evening block of Sunday programming watched Ed Sullivan welcome the Rolling Stones back to the show for a performance that left a bad taste in the band’s mouth. The arbiters of taste for the network insisted the Stones revamp their hook-up anthem Let’s Spend the Night Together by swapping the randy proposition into something more wholesome. The result: Let’s Spend Some Time Together.
Back to Sunday at SoFi: To promote the halftime performance, Pepsi bankrolled a music video promo. The Call is the title. It clocks in at just under four minutes and reminds me of the lavish music videos of the 1990s. That was the era when CD sales were still lush, radio was bullish, and record labels were still living large. That set the stage for music videos with big ambitions, big budgets, big MTV viewership, and Biggie Smalls.
It’s no surprise The Call feels like a callback. It turns out it was directed by F. Gary Gray, whose music video credits include apex classics such as Waterfalls by TLC, Ms. Jackson by OutKast, and It was a Good Day by Ice Cube. Gray moved on to feature films with big releases across a range of genre, among them Friday, The Italian Job, The Fate of the Furious, Straight Outta Compton, and most recently, Men in Black: International.
The Call is already closing in on nine million views on YouTube and it’s a lot of fun. It also looks like it may have been fun to make, with Gray reunited with Dre and Snoop Dogg after directing key 1990s videos for each of them: Natural Born Killaz and Keep their Heads Ringin’ with Dre and the epic Murder was the Case for Snoop).
I’ll go out on a limb and say It’s by far the best trailer I’ve ever seen for a soda-sponsored halftime performance at a major professional sporting event.
Fun fact: Did you know that Dr. Dre inherited one of his best-known hits from an uncle in Scotland? Sounds unlikely, I know, but it’s all true except for one detail: the uncle in Scotland was in fact a Man from U.N.C.L.E. in Scotland.
This is probably the right spot for me to remind you that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a sleek espionage adventure series that premiered on NBC in September 1964 and followed in the infra-red footprints of James Bond for 105 episodes, winning a Golden Globe Award along the way for best television series. The show’s concept and title were revived in 2015 for an underappreciated Warner Bros. feature film starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. Both versions centered on the intrepid agents of U.N.C.L.E., which stands for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. One of the taciturn agents on the NBC series was portrayed by a musically inclined Scottish actor named David McCallum.
McCallum’s musical gifts were on display on the show (like the episode where he duets with guest star Nancy Sinatra) as well as on four Capitol Records albums the Glasgow native recorded with David Axelrod. Their collaboration led to one especially evocative instrumental track called The Edge.
You can listen to McCallum’s plucky composition right here…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pG_3jZxzlo
Sound familiar? Yes, The Edge was plucked from obscurity by Dr. Dre and memorably repurposed as the musical bed for the Next Episode, a fan-favorite track that featured Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, and Nate Dogg and appeared on Dre’s terrific 2001 album from 1999.
Enjoy the game Sunday.