The Rolling Stones appearing on Navy Pier sounds like a latter-day Stones move: the one-time bad boys of Brit rock, the anti-Beatles, drug criminals across multiple continents, casting their lot with a carnival-midway tourist destination for the sake of another big payday.
But while it is tempting to see "Exhibitionism," the rich trove of Stones artifacts filling a mansion's worth of space on the Pier's east end, as yet another maneuver to cash in on a career whose creative heyday is years past, the reality is more complex and the show itself is much more winning than that.
"Exhibitionism," which opens Saturday and will be up through July 30, is not just another place to buy a $30 T-shirt on Navy Pier. It is more, too, than a standard-issue celebration of a storied career — in this case, arguably the most storied career in the rock era. From the 1957 Gibson Les Paul Custom that guitarist Keith Richards painted in psychedelic colors while on acid to the assortment of Satan-by-way-of-the-runway outfits singer Mick Jagger wore while performing "Sympathy for the Devil," "Exhibitionism" tries to connect Stones fans with the nitty-gritty of being a living, breathing, ridiculously successful rock 'n' roll band.
If, along the way, you happen to be floored by a reel-to-reel tape box containing what the handwritten label says is the master recording of "Wild Horses," so much the better. If you smile at seeing the Ebony magazine wig advertisement that became the model for the "Some Girls" album cover art, you have found the spirit Jagger said he wants this show to convey. If Richards' 1963 touring diary reminds you that at one point, Keith, Mick, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were just another set of blokes grinding it out across England as a blues cover band, well, that's where the magic lies. The fact that you're on Navy Pier falls away, and the story of the Stones, delivered episodically, in jolts, takes over.
The value in this — as opposed to another greatest-hits football-stadium concert tour — lies in the intimacy. It's not Keith's fret hand through binoculars, Mick preening on a video screen; it's Mick talking about songwriting or opining, in a wall quote, that the fashion and the attitude — the aura — count almost as much as the music. It is an early publicity photo of the lads dressed in matching houndstooth suits, Watts already looking the older gentleman.
Or it's Jagger delivering the money quote for this entire enterprise: "First you shock them. Then they put you in a museum."
That comes in a multiscreen video montage in the first room of this exhibition that does, indeed, put the Stones in a museum-style setting. It's been up, mostly to raves, in London and New York. For Stones' biography, spend a lot of time with that video wall paying attention to various points on the display, very well done but all too fleeting. Here is where the 1969 drowning death of Jones is handled, for instance, a potential emotional touchstone reduced to a passing headline.
But then the show steps back into their early days and makes its most human connections. You see a re-creation of the apartment Mick, Keith and Brian, and sometimes Charlie, occupied in London's Chelsea neighborhood in 1963. It is all dirty dishes, cigarette butts, empty beer bottles and records by the band's mentors, the likes of Chuck Berry and Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon. The speakers deliver Richards reminiscing about "penicillin" growing in milk bottles left out, Jagger recalling his distaste at entering the bathroom.
The next room, "Meet the Band," covers the birth of the Stones. Richards' diary notes that, in January 1963, the band earned 42 pounds. In the $5 audio tour — recommended for supplementary material that enriches the experience; share one among a group — he talks about how good the bassist Wyman and drummer Watts were laying down a rhythm together. "I knew this band was gonna happen … when we didn't even have a gig," Richards says. A contract on display shows the band's budding ambition to write their own material: "Michael Phillip Jagger" is applying for composer's rights.
And the Stones were sent to America. On a wall card, Keith describes a 1964 Chicago recording session at the legendary Chess Records, where the band met Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, as “a shortcut to heaven.”
But then the band gets bigger, in a seeming flash, and then even bigger than that. Screams of fans drown out their attempts to play live shows. And the lives of the Stones outside of making music and being the Rolling Stones starts to slip from evidence. Each of the galleries is effective in its own right. Especially potent are sections with the guitars of Richards and later addition Ronnie Wood and their reflections on each instrument, a mix-your-own-Stones-tune headphone station and a nifty re-creation of what it's like backstage at a big arena show.
A video with Martin Scorsese discussing the Stones' filmography is interesting in its own right — I now want to see Jean-Luc Godard's "Sympathy for the Devil," even if it sounds pretty tedious and the famous French director disowned it due to a producer's meddling. It's also effective for showing early concert footage, including from the infamous Altamont festival in California.
Does the famous lips logo deserve an entire room? I suppose if you've got 18,000 square feet to work with, fine.
But, perhaps inevitably, as the band's scale increases, you start to miss the personal touch that models of stage sets for stadium tours can't convey. The long hall of concert wardrobes will delight fashion aficionados, no doubt, but they seem to say more about being a performing entity with a huge budget than who these guys were. There is sex throughout — a photo of panties on a concert stage, the crotch shots Andy Warhol used for the brilliant "Sticky Fingers" album cover, the one with the zipper — but it's impersonal, a photo of a nude burlesque model rather than, say, a segment on early muse Marianne Faithfull.
And, another quibble, the music comes mostly in fragments. If there's one thing spending a couple of hours amid the Rolling Stones makes you want, it is to take the full, thrilling ride with "Tumbling Dice," "Paint It, Black" or "Beast of Burden."
I saw the show during a press preview Wednesday when finishing touches were still being applied. Although eight full tunes are available in the mixing station, the only song the show delivers in its entirety, to the whole audience, is “Satisfaction,” in a concert hall setting at show's end, just before the gift shop. Jagger may disagree in the wall text, but the music really does come first. The fact that this band came out of the Brit pop machinery to have that transcendent run of albums from 1968's "Beggars Banquet" through 1978's "Some Girls" is the primary reason you pay attention to the pose the band strikes or the frocks it soaked with sweat on the world's stages. It is the primary reason a thing like "Exhibitionism" exists.
The inevitable point of comparison here is "David Bowie Is," the 12,000-square-foot exhibition on the glam rocker that set attendance records at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2014. The Bowie show, which put headphones on attendees, delivered more music, more fully; its concluding concert hall room let you take off the headphones to sit and enjoy a string of tunes performed by Bowie at different ages. "Exhibitionism's" room sends you off only with a serviceable version of "Satisfaction" from this decade. It is one of the few iconic Stones tunes that has worn thin for me, and it is presented in the, to my mind, never effective medium of 3-D film.
But Bowie was a rock superstar for the outcasts, and he was a theater artist moving through personas and musical styles. The Stones, although they flirted with androgyny and indulged in the standard excesses of their trade, are and have been a mainstream rock band whose gifts and drive magnified its global presence into unimaginable proportions.
You have to pay close attention here to glean how they made that leap. It wasn't just the alchemy of Jagger and Richards having, as Keith says, "the same ear, basically." In the headphone bank outside the recording studio recreation, you can hear a description of the duo as perfectionists, willing to work until they knew a song was right.
It's that kind of detail that makes "Exhibitionism" worth the trip to Navy Pier. It's Jagger relating, on a wall card, that the "Sticky Fingers" cover was almost a disaster: A closed zipper, the band discovered, would warp the vinyl when the records were stacked, but if it was opened it hit right at the center point, which would not damage the record. It's the advertising flyer for the mobile recording studio the band developed, an innovative piece of equipment that would be rented by the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Who.
If you want more Stones music, you can load it up on your own player. If you want to spend an afternoon breathing in the aroma of this groundbreaking band, and of what rock music was like at the highest levels in its defining era, "Exhibitionism" will deliver — what's the word? — satisfaction.