Exhibitionism may imply naked danger, but a show about the Rolling Stones of the same name feels far too buttoned up.
“The Rolling Stones Exhibitionism” is the latest globe-trotting museum spectacle to its way to Chicago at Navy Pier, having started in London and traveled to New York.
The subject, the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, still touring more than 50 years after its first single in 1963, would suggest a deep vault of material for both obsessives and curiosity-seekers to pore over, the culmination of which might unlock answers to the band’s endurance as pop totems long before Beyonce was born.
Not so. Despite the band’s juicy tongue logo flickering everywhere the eye can see, this exhibit is flavorless. Which is a surprise for a band all about the strut of its beat. There is a gallery of stage costumes and a room of guitars, and another room of album covers that you already own and are familiar with. What this vanishing act of an exhibition doesn’t have is the Stones themselves. Who these people were before they were the cliches? At Navy Pier, room is made only for the cliches.
The elephant in that room is “David Bowie Is,” the triumphant exposition that opened in late 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Every square foot of that space told Bowie’s journey from David Jones to Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke through source materials, interviews, personal mementos, videos and other rare bric-a-brac untouched until now. In other words, you watched the artist’s evolution transform each room you entered, which deepened the appreciation of Bowie, even for those who knew him just through the hits.
“Exhibitionism” is uninterested in storytelling. In fact, one gets the sense that curator Ileen Gallagher was under strict orders to keep things extra light. Which is why the show feels more like a glorified stroll through a Hard Rock Cafe during Sunday brunch than any serious probe into the band itself.
Nothing on the wall or floor goes deep into the biographies of the band members, the context of postwar England, or even touches upon Brian Jones, the enigmatic Stone who founded the band and whose death in 1969 has loomed over it ever since. Guitarist Mick Taylor also is absent, as are associates Andrew Loog Oldham, Marianne Faithfull, Gram Parsons and Nicky Hopkins, among others. Even Chicagoan Darryl Jones, who has dutifully served as the band’s bassist since 1993, is relegated to a quickie video montage right before you exit to the gift shop.
The debauchery, the drug arrests, the life-or-death struggles to churn out masterworks like “Exile on Main Street” and “Sticky Fingers,” the songwriting alchemy between singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, a breakdown of their musical periods, from Chicago blues to psychedelic to disco to MTV, don’t make the cut either. Instead, here are walls occupied by old handbills and posters, a collection of Jagger’s harmonicas, a 1965 Ludwig drum kit played by Charlie Watts. You get the picture. A small hand diary kept by Richards is a recreation. The most interesting component of “Exhibitionism” are early sketches of those iconic album covers by artists ranging from photographer Robert Frank to Andy Warhol. They are in a room that also prominently features a “Bridges to Babylon” CD under glass.
The “wow” of “Exhibitionism” are immersive showpieces starting with a recreated flat the band shared in London’s Chelsea neighborhood in 1962, one year before they became stars. The audio tour reminds listeners the flat is not based on photographs but “vivid recollections.” But when it comes to a sinkful of artfully placed dirty dishes and a chaotic living room, does it even matter? Musicians, especially those hungry to make it, aren’t exactly known for their cleanliness, so dirty dishes are dirty dishes. The same is true of the recreated backstage area—complete with makeup table and hammock for the roadies—as well as a recording studio that, the show notes, is not based on any studio in the band’s history.
So what, then, is the point? Fans wanting to actually step inside a studio the Stones actually spent time in can now travel to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where that city’s famed studio namesake was restored and opened earlier this year. There they can stand in the exact spot where Jagger sang “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” Its counterpart at “Exhibitionism?” A roomful of vintage instruments and your imagination. (Pro tip: You can also have the same experience for free by standing inside your local guitar shop.)
Now would be the natural point in the review to tell fans they can also hop a cab from Navy Pier and visit Chess Studios on South Michigan Avenue, another hallowed Stones site where the band recorded during their first trip to America. Sadly, Chess is mostly shuttered to the public. So for now, all Chicagoans have is “Exhibitionism” to get their Stones fix. It’s going to be a mild high.