The halftime coach
IT’S only a few days before Super Bowl Sunday, and the guy directing and producing the pregame and halftime shows would like to know, please, which songs the Rolling Stones will perform. But the Stones aren’t ready to decide yet. And so Don Mischer, who is reprising this role from last year and has also produced opening and closing ceremonies for two Olympics, eight Emmys and the 2004 Democratic National Convention, is sitting in his temporary office in a converted locker room in the bowels of Tiger Stadium, guessing.
It’s an elaborate game of pretend. Numbered pieces of paper taped to lockers represent some 20 cameras awaiting Mischer’s command at neighboring Ford Field. “Keith and Mick often make great moves away from the band,” Mischer tells Gregg Gelfand, the show’s associate director. “But I’m assuming that Keith will always start on the left side of the stage.” This isn’t a blind assumption; Mischer took in four Stones concerts in the last year and has reviewed countless hours of tape. He knows their lyrics, their moves. Everything except their darn set list.
“What if they sing ‘Get Off of My Cloud,’ ” he says, pressing buttons to find the song on a CD. And in an instant he’s on his feet, chair flying backward, calling out camera switches in rapid fire to best capture the essence of these imaginary Stones. Gelfand sets cues -- “ready camera five on Mick” -- and Mischer waits, waits, waits: “Take!” he shouts, fists pounding the air. Take, take, take!
Mischer can appreciate secrecy. When Muhammad Ali was chosen to light the torch in the 1996 Olympics, Mischer sent nearly all staff and security packing and practiced with the boxer late at night with a flashlight. But secrecy has a different tilt to it after Janet Jackson bared a breast -- the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” -- in the 2004 halftime show, prompting a flood of viewer complaints and a Federal Communications Commission fine of $550,000 leveled against CBS. This year’s halftime show will be on a five-second tape delay for the first time in Super Bowl history; it wasn’t deemed necessary for last year’s show, perhaps since the more staid Paul McCartney wasn’t likely to go off script (he turned in his final set list months before the game).
Even though McCartney was a safe choice, he was an odd fit for an audience fueled by beer and adrenaline, and even Mischer, who directed the show, admits that the stadium didn’t reverberate. There must be some middle ground between McCartney and a naked breast, and in late spring 2005, the National Football League began a dialogue with the Stones about “a season-long platform,” says Charles Coplin, vice president of programming for the NFL, which has kept a closer watch on the halftime show ever since a breast marred its family-friendly spectacle. “They agreed to play a few songs at our kickoff show, and ABC used one of their songs, ‘Rough Justice,’ for Monday Night Football, and it will all culminate in those 12 minutes at halftime.”
Not only did the Stones agree to participate, they agreed to do the halftime show for Super Bowl XL (40 for you non-Latin speakers) gratis, even paying for some of their own special effects. At a news conference Thursday, Mick Jagger noted that “America has changed since we first came here, it’s almost unrecognizable,” as has Mick, who’s a long way from his bad boy days. But maybe not that far. He ended his comments with his own mini shocker, turning to a bank of TV cameras and saying, “Network television, they’re always worried about how many times you’re going to say [expletive] on the air.” Then, to soothe NFL nerves: “They needn’t worry about it. Calm down more and take life as it comes.”
The question is, does anyone really care about the halftime show? Millions of people watch the Super Bowl, sure, but at some point they’ve got to get off the couch to use the loo and burn some more nachos. Commercials used to serve that purpose, but who wants to miss the Bud Bowl? “Of the three parts of the Super Bowl -- the game, advertisements and the halftime show -- the halftime show is the least evolved, the least thought out and the poorest,” says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “It remains an ancient anachronistic remnant of the Ed Sullivan era.” Not so, says Coplin. “People perceive the halftime show as big entertainment and spectacle.”
Whether or not the halftime show matters to a worldwide audience, it matters in Detroit. Aretha Franklin, who with Stevie Wonder will appear in the Super Bowl pregame show, made headlines in Michigan when she criticized the NFL for failing to showcase Motown at halftime. “We thought it was a little bit remiss that they came to Detroit and didn’t use at least one artist from Detroit,” she said at a news conference. (The invitation for her and Wonder to play in the pregame mollified her somewhat.)
Regulars at the Sweet Water Tavern, a few blocks from Ford Field, hear Franklin loud and clear. There’s a sense at the tavern, amid smoke and liquored good cheer, that Super Bowl XL is in Detroit but not of Detroit. The Steelers and Seahawks are playing rather than the hometown Lions, and recent cutbacks at General Motors and Ford mean that many Detroiters are more concerned with paying rent than buying Super Bowl tickets.
“What they should’ve done is have the Motown theme for halftime,” says Johnny “Cheese” Petracci, the tavern’s manager. “The Stones are 60 years old, man. They’re dead.” A friend at a nearby table raises his beer in agreement. “People would’ve liked to see the Temptations or Diana Ross,” says Darryl Powell, an assistant manager. “It should’ve been another act. The NFL is just another elite group of people. Everything has to go their way.”
Mike Kunik, a 26-year-old musician wandering by the tavern with a friend, disagrees. “I think Detroiters just need something to [complain] about. Motown is not a current thing. People don’t listen to it. And anyway, during the halftime show I’ll probably be getting another beer.”
Regardless of the halftime snub, locals are pitching in to make halftime happen. About 300 unpaid volunteers spent long hours the week before the Super Bowl learning how to pitch the Stones’ massive stage (117 by 100 feet), which on Sunday they must do in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, Mischer and various ABC producers joined dozens of volunteers on Wednesday before the game to rehearse part of the pregame ceremony honoring MVPs from all the previous Super Bowls.
“We want to thank you guys for doing this,” Mischer told the group of mostly twentysomethings assembled at nearby Wayne State University’s basketball gym. Cue music, cue announcer, and here come the MVPs. John Elway has lost weight, he’s wearing dangling earrings, and -- wait, that isn’t Elway. It’s Summer LaViolett, a 23-year-old Detroit native, waving to imaginary fans, carrying a picture of Elway before her face.
Mischer, again, is guessing. The real MVPs don’t arrive until Saturday, and they’ll likely walk and act a little differently than these Detroiter stand-ins. “Do you think we should have them stop in the middle?” he asks Fred Gaudelli, a producer at ABC. “No,” Gaudelli says. “Some guy might want to milk the moment because of his ego.”
The scene at Wayne State is jovial and lively and feels like summer camp; in contrast, Ford Field, with its layers of security and metal detectors and thousands of workers with badges milling about, seems more like the Pentagon. On game day, Mischer and his team will race between a trailer across the street stuffed with video monitors and controls and a skybox in the stadium. Thursday evening finds Mischer in the trailer watching Stevie Wonder, Joss Stone and John Legend rehearse the pregame show on the field, and practicing cues and cuts.
Mischer is on his feet as Wonder sings, scanning all available camera angles and yelling -- Take! Take! -- until Wonder waves a hand and halts the number. He can’t hear Legend, he explains. And “my ears keep popping,” he says, fiddling with an earpiece. “These are valuable ears. I need them.”
At 9:45 or so, rehearsal ends and the musicians pack up. And Patrick Woodroffe, the Stone’s lighting designer, drops by the trailer to say hello to Mischer. The Stones have still not set a playlist, but what’s “really interesting,” says Woodroffe, is that the NFL will allow the band to sing the word “come” even if it can have another spelling and meaning.
Mischer laughs nervously, but smiles.
“As long as everybody’s happy,” he says.
‘NFL Super Bowl XL’
When: Pre-game, 11:30 a.m.; Game, 3 p.m. Sunday.