Venue: The O2 Arena, London
When this was announced, my natural excitement was tempered by more than a degree of trepidation and cynicism about what this exhibition would be and how Prince would be represented.
The decisions and motivation of his sister and the plethora of ‘relatives’ that suddenly came on the scene in the wake of his death have been the source of much consternation and, er, controversy amongst much of his hardcore fan community; so there remain fears that this, as an extension of the transformation of Paisley Park as a memorial/museum, might just be a quick and tacky cash-in job. Factor in that the curator of the exhibition is a director of Graceland, and the dollar signs seem to be shining brightly. Nonetheless, regardless of these reservations, it’s Prince for goodness’ sake, and it’s the closest I’m gonna get to upstate Minnesota in this lifetime, so of course I was always going to be there.
The extension of its run over a period way beyond the original, poignantly resonant 21 days ‘due to unprecedented demand’ led me to imagine queues round the block and a crush at all the displays, but it was a pleasant surprise to find the exhibition space sparsely attended at my designated entry time, so that I was able to get up close and personal for detailed perusal of every item.
Bowie was as much about the art as the heart, whereas Prince was all about the funk, the groove, the sheer emotional impact of playing and performing his music to give you the best goddamn time of your life.
The substance of the exhibition has come in for some criticism in the media, mainly in the context of other recent music icon retrospectives. I saw David Bowie at the V & A back in 2013, and it was phenomenally well done and can be now considered as the benchmark. I honestly didn’t expect this to be as good, because (a) the curators at the V & A are obviously experts in putting together a serious and comprehensive retrospective of a culturally important subject in an appropriately significant environment, as it’s their day job, and (b) much as I love him – and I really, really do – Prince has never presented his intellectualism and cultural influences as openly and thoroughly as Bowie did. I’m not saying Prince was not intellectual – he was smart and knowledgeable in many ways – but that wasn’t the function of his music or his public persona. Bowie was as much about the art as the heart, whereas Prince was all about the funk, the groove, the sheer emotional impact of playing and performing his music to give you the best goddamn time of your life. Hence you don’t get to see much about his private life, his likes and dislikes, his favourite books or art; he kept all that stuff to himself. What you do see and hear is what Prince essentially was all about – the music and the show. He laid himself open to us through music and performance…sadly too much, in the end.
This is made explicit in the many quotes displayed on the backdrops, and in excerpts of the commentary/soundtrack accessed, as is standard practice in these events, through a personal headset, featuring a bespoke ‘mixtape’ and a more chronological sequence of songs to tie in with the copious amount of videos and clips of live shows from across his career. For the more serious fan, this can be quite frustrating, as the choice of material is mostly familiar; it would have been interesting and illuminating to have had a few more esoteric selections from his vast output, but it should be appreciated that the style and location of this exhibition is designed to appeal to a broader and more mildly curious audience. Having said this, there are some strange omissions in musical and visual exhibits along the ‘journey’ – nothing from the awesome Parade tour, no footage of the ‘Lovesexy’ live shows or the 1990 Nude Tour, and very little from that tricky early 2000s Jehovah’s Witness period, which was obviously so important to Prince himself.
In spite of these flaws, what is on show ensured that I abandoned my critical misgivings and embraced my unashamed inner fanboi. A few highlights…
As if we had any doubt, the guy was tiny. His waist was as thick as one of my legs! An amazing array of examples of a unique sense of style which only Prince could ever have gotten away with. Being able to take such a close look, literally an arm’s length away, was revelatory. The detail on the costumes – the diagonal button features, ruched trousers, exquisite flocking, matching boots etc of the mid-late 80s eras, made of the most delicate, gossamer-thin material (these were real working clothes); the iconic coats (Purple Rain) and suits (Raspberry Beret, Batman/Gemini), moving on to the sharp Diamonds & Pearls ensembles, branded Symbol and NPG iconography of the later 90s outfits and on to the looser, asymmetrical and flowing tunics and tops of his latter years. Who else would even think of carrying off wearing a jacket with sleeves emblazoned with the legend ‘dopamine rush’?
More appealing to the musos among you, but again emblematic of the guy’s unique aesthetic and idiosyncratic professional requirements, from his first personally-customised leopardskin/lighted model, to his favourite Hohner and a fantastic ‘steampunk’ blue-black creation used in the ‘Batman’ sessions and videos. Also, Wendy’s acoustic used for ‘Raspberry Beret’ and a sunburst-design Fender (?) from around 2010. (You can tell I’m not a muso…)
The central room
With displays and video-banks built around a facsimile of the Symbol-shaped stage, where all chronology is lost but the experience becomes totally immersive…truly Prince heaven.
That cloud suit. Watching him sing ‘Purple Rain’ with the very costumes from the tour directly in my eyeline. Prince’s notebooks with the original script notes for the screenplay (he has lovely handwriting). The longform video for ‘Thieves In The Temple’ that I first saw back in 1990 before the Nude show. The ‘Paisley Park’ room, in which I felt a really strong emotional connection to what the place meant to him, and how much he has impacted on my life; and (a really lovely personal touch) the final exhibit, a re-creation of the fence outside the Paisley Park complex, where visitors are invited to write and leave their own personal messages in much the same way that fans did at the site after his passing. So, a flawed and very partial overview in many ways, but ultimately this is, thankfully, a tastefully conceived celebration of a life lived and fulfilled almost exclusively through music and performance.
If you’re a fan, it’s essential.
– Michael Benstead