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Why Did I Like But Not Love The Immersive Van Gogh Experience?

Mark Smotroff realizes he is spoiled by Cirque Du Soleil…

I had fairly high expectations for the impressive Immersive Van Gogh experience show that is touring the country right now. And I’ll stay up front I’m grateful for the organizers for creating a safe immersive experience during these pandemic times that was genuinely engaging and overall really nice. I don’t really have any problems with the show conceptually which puts viewers in the heart of Van Gogh’s artwork, projected on walls in high resolution video, animated and compiled in such a way as to bring the art to life.

I admit, however, that I am perhaps a bit spoiled by the high production values of Cirque Du Soleil, and particularly their Love show featuring The Beatles’ music presented in surround sound (which I’ve seen three or four times so far). Thus, I do  wonder if this Van Gogh show had been crafted a little bit differently there might have been opportunity to make it even more immersive, compelling and exciting. 

For example, here in San Francisco the event was held in a venue that is quite legendary: the former Fillmore West. It was closed 50 years ago this year (on July 4th, in fact) and for decades had been a Honda dealership. It is now an event space for rent

So, here is this 21st century twist on a psychedelic light show presented in this incredible legendary space with all this history and legacy of classic concerts and even light shows and the producers didn’t really leverage that opportunity. 

The music was presented what felt like was probably Stereo and it sounded nice (played quite loudly, the venue offered earplugs upon request). The full-room event seemed designed to allow people be able to walk around during the show. However, most people didn’t really do that, many simply finding a spot and staying in place sitting on stools, floor pads (offered at the door) or on the floor itself. 

Probably due a safety requirement, there was always a low but visible light on so it wasn’t ever completely dark in the venue. This of course enabled people to walk around safely and keep socially distanced.  But, this sometimes washed out the power of the imagery being projected.

Curious, I took the time to walk around and realized that there was nothing lost by just staying in one place.  It seemed like the four walls of the hall were basically displaying the same visuals, wrapping around the room.  And the music was room filling and clear, but it didn’t really seem to change perspective as I moved around in it. 

One opportunity missed would have been to give the participants sonic changes as they walked around the room to match the ever flowing visuals. 

That said, given the relatively basic sound design, perhaps it might have made more sense to formally ask people to sit facing one direction. Then the producers could have darkened the room more to make the images pop that much more.  More traditional seating might have expanded options for an immersive surround sound experience or at least a more distinct Stereo presentation.  

The soundtrack by composer Luca Longobardi was quite lovely with very interesting modern interpretations of some classics such as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” and Samuel Barbara’s “Adagio For Strings.”  Edith Piaf and even Radiohead’s Thom Yorke make appearances in the mix. 

In fact, I liked the music enough that I was actually interested in purchasing an Immersive Van Gogh soundtrack album (thinking I might review it here). Curiously, the event’s gift shop didn’t have any sort of soundtrack for sale that I could see (and I haven’t found one for sale online). I did however find a playlist of the music presented in the show compiled by the composer (embedded below) so I guess that is the next best thing in these web-centric times we live in. You can also find Longobardi’s albums streaming on Tidal and Qobuz, including a six-song EP called Vincent (the songs are in the Spotify playlist)

The gift shop did have Van Gogh-emblazoned hats, umbrellas, T-shirts, socks and sweatshirts, posters and coasters and even artwork from unrelated artists.  The prices were quite high too, it seemed: $99 dollars for a sweatshirt or a $30 fishing hat seemed steep. Not surprisingly I saw more people leaving empty-handed instead of with arms full of happy memorabilia.  

Ultimately, I came away liking the Immersive Van Gogh experience but not loving it. Maybe I wasn’t the ultimate target audience. A friend pointed out that he thought the show was designed as a family entertainment (thus it lasted about an hour which is ideal for young kids). And perhaps the producers needed to find some common ground of ease of set up for a plug ’n play touring operation.  I get it…

Can I at least dream a bit that someday there will be a permanent installation of the Immersive Van Gogh in a great venue with fully immersive, discrete surround soundtrack and proper lighting which maximizes the impact of the imagery?  Or maybe they’ll condense it all onto a Blu-ray Disc that we could watch at home? Either way, I’ll be keeping a look out for how this show might evolve. And if you love Van Gogh, you should try to see it in your city. It is an impressive show, but just set your expectations accordingly.

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