Warning: This is a 100% spoiler-filled review.
I avoided all reviews before I went to see the exhibit, but honestly, I don’t think they would have spoiled the experience for me. In fact, I may have been more prepared for one or two spots along the way. But you ain’t me and I give a lot of opinions along the way, so depending on how you feel about that, you may want to wait. Your call.
I drove all the way to Chicago to see the recently installed exhibit, Prince: The Immersive Experience. I welcome any excuse to visit Chicago, and a chance to see any major Prince development for myself, so a sweet two-fer. My schedule doesn’t generally allow for me to drop out of my various commitments and circles for any real length of time, so I was basically there for that and not much else. Drove up with Prince scholar/journalist Erica Thompson at the invitation of All-Things-Prince Maestro, KaNisa Williams. It was KaNisa’s idea to coordinate a group of Prince fans that have appeared at various conferences, Celebrations, and have other Prince ties, and have at least heard of each other, if not officially met. It felt good to see them all, as we’ve all struggled with not having our usual reasons to congregate under the Prince banner over the last couple of years.
(Also, I make no bones about how this group – along with some other key fans, scholars, podcasters and writers who weren’t there – has contributed directly to ensuring Prince is concretely and unapologetically contextualized in his (and our) Blackness moving forward as his legacy becomes more defined and mass produced.)
There are a few levels of tickets (between $40 – $65), but the differences between them really boil down to a piece of swag here and there. I, of course, sprung for the highest level, “The Gold Experience”. I refuse to miss out on something potentially dope over 20 bucks. That said, you probably don’t need the VIP deal unless you want to ditch the line and (at least for now) get a free poster in the gift shop. The line ditching was irrelevant for our group because we went so early in the day. There wasn’t any line to ditch. The replica pass that comes with the Gold level is a nice touch, but doesn’t afford you any specialized access. Everyone goes on the same tour no matter what you pay. Unlike Paisley Park, the photo opportunities are available to every level of entry. So you really shouldn’t see the admission levels as anything more than a chance to get a lanyard and badge. You can’t buy them in the gift shop, so that may be a reason to get one more souvenir. At a $20 price differential, it’s one of the cheaper things you’ll spend money on after the tour.
The exhibit is nestled in what used to be a Virgin Megastore right on The Mile, which is kind of cool, since rumor has it Prince popped in there at least once.
You ride escalators up past the gift shop area to a hallway lined with enormous pics of Prince and your first photo opportunity: a wide cloud mural with a huge Prince symbol for posing. Zaheer Ali from our group pointed out how good the lighting was for this, with a nod to what people would be doing in the space: taking hundreds of pictures.
The official start of the tour begins in a dark waiting room, watching a video setting up the vibe. It’s quick, maybe a couple of minutes, well done, and then you’re off to the first thing. The familiar looking French doors to your left open up and you step into…
When Doves Cry Room
This room is a reproduction of the “When Doves Cry” video set, complete with steamy bathtub, flowers scattered on the floor, the self-reflecting sink and mirror, the large face mural, and some other nice touches. This is the first staged photo op of the tour, and it’s a really great way to kick things off. The scene is iconic, and being able to situate yourself around the tub how you like (stay out of the tub!) is a really smart introduction to what level of interaction is available on tour. “When Doves Cry” is the song and video that really gave his career the shot in the arm it needed to go supernova, so it was a lot of fun – and eerily on point – to get to walk around in that setting.
I had to do it:
Minneapolis Roots Room
This may have an official name, but it’s a room dedicated to Prince’s family roots, the city he grew up in, and what it was like to be Prince before he became a household name. There are some interactive kiosks here, and a really big map of Prince’s Minneapolis, complete with a legend of sites from his formative years.
Paisley Park Studio B
This room was a clever and small reproduction of the famed Studio B at Paisley Park where Prince cut a ton of classic work. At Paisley Park, you get to go in Studio B where the musicians played, but the engineering booth is closed off (or was at the time of my last visit). The Immersive Experience takes you in the opposite direction, recreating the inside of the booth in admittedly broad strokes, and setting up mixing stations for visitors to play with several tracks from “Let’s Go Crazy”.
This was way more fun than you might expect with only 8 tracks to play with, but such is the genius of Prince, as well as the slick arrangement/design by the Immersive Experience. I loved being able to listen to Prince sing over solo bass, or whatever. Shout out to the neon moon light over the couch, which you see in pictures of Prince in the studio. Photo ops abound!
The Wrecka Collection (My name for it)
This was a winding hall whose walls were displays of all* his released albums. The thing this part of the exhibit conveys without saying so outright is that Prince owes us nothing. When you walk the corridor of his dozens of released albums (each with a paragraph about the album’s import or otherwise outstanding feature), not only is his jaw-dropping level of talent evident, but so is his exasperating work ethic. It took years for Prince to teach himself how to play music, and then countless hours constantly – perhaps endlessly – trying to perfect what he wanted to put into the world. You can’t help but marvel at how much we already have at our fingertips. There are self-professed Prince fans who won’t have listened to whole sections of that corridor, and seeing all of the albums collectively given that kind of weight will certainly compel such people to catch up.
The Diamonds and Pearls Room
This was a velvet and pearls-drenched room with several well-mimicked photo op spots. At half the size of the When Doves Cry room, the area is a touch too small for the amount of props it contains and that people want to take pics with (a couch, a chair, a frame, the big flaming hand/bowl). This is where the first traffic jam of people occurred, though everyone was cool about it. We all understood that this was most people’s only shot at the exhibit, so a lot of communal grace was extended for all the semi-pro photo shoots happening in there.
The whole of the exhibit is littered with huge murals of Prince quotes, and they’re the good ones.
The Freedom Room
This is another room that probably has a different proper name, but my title works. The walls are printed with history and quotes from Prince’s fight for artistic freedom, specifically with his long-time label Warner Bros. There’s a good video on loop of him talking about the issue and the very important values behind his actions.
This is also the space with what some of us were calling the Black Wall, which was really gratifying to see. As a Black fan, I recognize that Prince’s blackness – his ethnicity, his love for his people, his philanthropy – was (and is) constantly being erased in the mainstream conversations about his legacy, so to see it so plainly laid out on display here was really powerful. In an exhibit like this, where many of the people who come to see it won’t be super hardcore fans, but people who just loved his music for a while, it’s good that we all have to acknowledge that context. When those of us who fight this particular battle say it on the internet, it’s one thing, but to have it codified as part of an immersive display is exciting.
The First Avenue/Purple Rain Room
This was one of my favorite parts. Sure, it’s cool to be able to sit on Prince’s motorcycle and recreate the album cover for Purple Rain, but the real fun is in the details.
There is a recreation of the exterior wall of First Avenue, complete with the guerilla 24-carat gold leaf star remixed by artist Peyton Russell. There’s a door that leads to the less-sexy back part of the club, the 7th St Entry (which will always be dope to me because I got to go in there and perform as part of the now-defunct National Poetry Slam). There’s another door that has a graffiti version of a line from “Darling Nikki”, putting her phone number up to call whenever you wanna grind.
My hands-down favorite set piece in this room is the fake newspaper article plastered on the wall about a Battle of the Bands, with a page full of colorful commentary about the bands. It’s a really great piece of fan fiction that adds so much to the effort.
I got on the motorcycle, but they don’t let anybody go up the steps, so our group couldn’t go “Full Apollonia” (though I did see a pic afterwards of someone on the stairs, so…). Extra credit: the motorcycle – a modified 1981 Honda CB400A Hondamatic – has mock revving engine action!
The Fashion Runaway
There are several outfits on display. I liked what they had, but would have liked more of this kind of thing. Items from the estate would really launch this whole experience to another level. We want to see the master’s tools, or really anything he might have touched. Not even a sheet of lyrics? A little more in this respect would be very welcome. I’m sure there are good legal reasons not to tour some of that material, but there’s so much of it that a little more sprinkle here and there would be next level. If I can go to a museum and see an original Rembrandt, Dali and Picasso, I think we can figure out how to handle Prince’s gloves in the wild.
The dance floor – complete with a rotating roster of live local DJs! – is a nice touch. Visitors are encouraged to dance in the darkened space with special lighting designed by Prince’s lighting and production designer, LeRoy Bennett. The exhibit wisely has a “skip it” feature so that people who may experience problems with strobes can bypass this part.
The dance floor – while fun with the right group, is a bit of a missed opportunity. It doesn’t really look like the Glam Slam clubs, or even the NPG Club at Paisley Park. It’s mostly mirrors and lights. A little effort to brand this more would be good. This room was followed up with a hallway display of a couple of guitars and a keytar.
The Mood Kiosks
This is the last proper interactive element, and I don’t want to spoil this too much because frankly, it’s very cool. Just know that you use a kiosk whose goal is to determine your “Prince Mood” through a series of questions and activities. This gave me mad 1994 Prince Interactive CD-Rom game vibes, which are always welcome.
That’s pretty much where the tour ends. Takes about an hour, and it plops you back where you began, by the escalators.
I thought this was going to be underwhelming, but was pleased to be corrected, by which I mean Prince got me for my loot here.
I expected it to be the stuff you see at the Paisley Park gift shop, just shipped to Chicago for the rubes. Nope: there was a lot of Immersive Experience branded and exclusive stuff, which was nice, but like everything else Prince related these days, expensive. Good news: the gift shop is open to the public whether they go on the tour or not, and the site is selling most of it if you can’t get to Chicago.
I got…several pieces of swag. A couple of things for now:
Shout out to finally getting some adult-sized XL stuff! I bought a t-shirt at Paisley when it opened in 2016 that was billed as an XL or 2X as I recall, but was basically a dog’s ThunderShirt for humans. They rectified this here. The totes could be more resilient, but most people who buy them never use them, so no one’s complaining. The hoodies I bought were robust, so I pretty much can’t wait until the weather returns again.
Because I bought a Gold level ticket I also received a free poster of the Around the World in a Day cover, which, eh. I’d have liked something I don’t essentially already have. A never-released photo of Prince would have been excellent, or whatever. They literally have thousands of options.
The photo ops were all really excellent, and the crowd was handled pretty well. The Premium Flex Entry ticket ($54.50 or $66.50 with souvenir backstage pass) allows you to come and go in the exhibit any time during the day of your visit, so you can go get lunch and come back and snag that Diamonds and Pearls shot you wanted but skipped because it was packed. The layout of the rooms was excellent.
KaNisa pointed out how focused on Prince this exhibit is. That sounds weird considering what it’s called, but it’s a really astute observation. There is practically no mention of associate acts or girlfriends or aliases or any of that. It’s all Prince-focused, which was quite refreshing. It definitely expands your appreciation of his gifts, and allows for proper reflection on his representative work.
– War on Christmas: There is a shocking absence of anything regarding Prince’s religious life. This exhibit didn’t touch on it at all. I mean, wisely so perhaps, but it’s noticeable if you know the man.
– Skip the Cherries: Why can’t Under the Cherry Moon get any love? Even Paisley Park has a converted office they halfway made into a Cherry Moon display.
– Hide Your Kids: There isn’t anything lewd about this exhibit except for the unedited version of “Sexy M.F.” playing briefly in the Diamonds and Pearls room.
– Can Prince Come Out and Play?: The estate remains stingy when it comes to Prince items for display purposes. Some (new) live video from concerts would be a huge addition here.
– Yacht Rock Prince: Still too much emphasis on 1980s work. Would have liked at least one notable nod to post-2000 work.
Final grade: Solid B or B- for hardcore fans, an A for casual fans and people who ain’t hip.
Anyone who digs Prince should go and experience it. Those who are hardcore prince fans and know everything this exhibit offers will still relish the opportunities provided to have fun with Prince in the photo ops and see their favorite icon get some real world, non-Paisley Park shine.