The new Rolling Stones exhibit, “Exhibitionism,” makes the case for its name over almost 18,000 square feet of space on Navy Pier. The potential pitfall of such a large-scaled scrap bag of guitars and other instruments, costumes, album and poster art, contracts, diary pages, photos, video presentations and facsimiles of a squalid flat and a backstage area is that what enabled the Stones to merit such treatment — the music — could become overshadowed by the show.
THE ROLLING STONES ‘EXHIBITIONISM’
When: April 15 through July 30
Where: Navy Pier, Festival Hall B, 600 E. Grand
Tickets (time-stamped): $32-$35 for adults, $25-$27 for students, military personnel, and seniors (65+over); kids under 6, free. VIP tickets, $80. Groups (1o or more) visit BICGroups.com
The chief flaws of “Exhibitionism” — which opens Saturday and comes to Chicago by way of New York and, originally, London — do involve a failure to connect certain musical dots, but what the exhibit does well is to provide the artistic underpinnings for granting the images such elevated stature. And it’s fun.
“Musicians always like to talk that it’s only about the music,” reads a wall sign attributed to frontman Mick Jagger. “It isn’t, of course. It’s about what you wear what you look like, what your attitudes are — all of these things.”
You read this message steps away from the long corridors of costumes spanning the British band’s 50-year career, and what’s immediately striking is that this instinct for showmanship was there from the scrappy beginnings, when the Stones were transforming Chuck Berry riffs and Chicago blues rhythms into something hip-shakingly their own. We’re so used to seeing early footage of the band in black and white that we may not have considered that live audiences were being treated to Brian Jones in a velvet-colored jacket in 1963 or Charlie Watts in a forest-green tartan suit from the London boutique Granny Takes a Trip in 1966.
Things get more psychedelic, glammy and campy-wacky as the band ushers in the era of arena and stadium tours and guitarist Keith Richards and especially Jagger dress to ensure that fans in the upper deck will see their flamboyant outfits. You could argue that the Stones never progressed musically beyond their indispensible songs of 1981, “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend” (both of which had been resurrected from old sessions), but the fashions kept evolving, with Jagger sporting eye-popping, sometimes-ridiculous outfits from name designers such as Alexander McQueen and the singer’s longtime partner L’Wren Scott, who, before her suicide in 2014, designed various colorfully patterned silk and satin jackets plus a dark feather cape that looks suited for Chewbacca.
The exhibit’s emphasis on costumes brings to mind “David Bowie Is,” another interactive rock-star extravaganza that the Museum of Contemporary Art presented in late 2014 and is an obvious inspiration here. But Bowie’s fashion shifts served as signifiers of his ever-changing personae, mirrored by shifts in his musical approaches.
Bowie’s costumes tell a story; the Stones’ don’t. There’s no relating the ragged, rootsy, dissipated rock of the Stones’ landmark “Exile on Main Street” to the goofy velvet jumpsuits that Jagger sported on the subsequent tour. The shows were spectacles for the sake of spectacle, with the music providing the danceable soundtrack.
So it may be fitting that “Exhibitionism” isn’t presented as a chronological narrative. The band enjoyed peak periods — such as the exotic, driving “Aftermath” (1966); the classic 1968-72 stretch of “Beggar’s Banquet” through “Exile” and the funky resurgence of “Some Girls” (1978) — but has made Rolling Stones music throughout.
The early days are most strikingly represented in a recreation of a dingy Chelsea apartment shared by Jagger, Richards, Jones and another friend and littered with Watneys Red Ale bottles, coffee cups, cigarette stubs, stray socks, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records and unwashed plates (so many plates!) covering almost every grimy surface. It’s fun to imagine these future velvet-jacket wearers living in such squalor, though the exhibit doesn’t really walk us through how they got from one place to the other.
This is the missing element: How did the Stones become the Stones? How did they start writing songs and climbing the artistic and commercial ladders? What was happening when things were going well and less well musically?
Richards covers such material nicely in his “Life” memoir, and there are some insightful recorded and printed interview snippets here, such as his appreciation of open-G tuning on a five-string, dark wood guitar or his explanation of switching from a hollow-bodied Epiphone Casino to a solid-bodied Gibson Les Paul because he grew tired of the former’s feedback.
One treasure is a tiny diary that Richards kept in 1963, with such notes as “First set 8:30-9:00. Musically very good but didn’t quite click. Second set 9:15-10:15. Swung much better. Brian and I rather put off by lack of volume…”
There’s also a gallery of Richards’ and Ron Wood’s guitars, which is nifty in itself, though it would’ve been illuminating to hear snippets of these instruments being used on record. In the same room is a cool mixing-board feature where you can turn up and down the individual tracks (Jagger’s lead vocal, guitars, bass, drums, backing vocals, keyboards…) of eight different songs, including “Rocks Off,” “Miss You” and “Undercover of the Night.” Another highlight is Andy Warhol’s early ’70s sketches and paintings of Jagger.
Several “Exhibitionism” elements were not ready during the press preview on Wednesday, including a 3-D presentation of a 50th anniversary performance of “Satisfaction” and the side lighting treatments to enhance the mood of Martin Scorsese’s documentary work on the band. The finished exhibit is likely to feel less patchy.
The video spotlighting the Stones’ MTV offerings was there, though, as is a small, not too impactful wall of Stones-in-Chicago photos compiled for this engagement.
“David Bowie Is” had storytelling problems as well, particularly in its scattered second half, so this sort of thing may be hard to pull off. There’s enough gas-gas-gas here to entertain and immerse the Stones fan who already knows how they got their satisfaction.
Mark Caro is a local freelance writer.