Some 45 years after their first appearance on a San Francisco stage, The Residents remain a band that practically defines the term “cult,” and their freak-show, cartoon-surrealist approach continues to attract a healthy fan base (as evidenced by some sold-out shows at Tokyo’s Blue Note back in March).
It was only a matter of time before someone gave The Residents their own rock doc, but director Don Hardy Jr.’s “Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents” faced an unusual problem: How do you dig into the history of a “band” that has remained defiantly anonymous throughout its career?
Who lurks behind the top-hatted giant-eyeball masks is a question that has long been shrouded in mystery, which has led to much speculation. (The Beatles were prime suspects, then David Byrne.) “Theory of Obscurity” does not unmask the band, but it does include interviews with current and former members of the Cryptic Corporation — their business/management arm — and it’s likely that some of them have seen the inside of an eyeball mask.
But to obsess over secret identities is kind of missing the point. As one interviewee puts it: “The Residents do not exist. They are an idea.” Their brand is anonymity, a radical form of anti-celebrity. “Theory of Obscurity” shows us The Residents’ most notorious music video — an off-kilter cover of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” — then points out that it doesn’t even feature the actual band members (they hired professional dancers to take their place). Why not? Their critique of pop music was that it didn’t have to be about a cult of personality.
The Residents project has always been a collective. The core of the group seems to be a few guys from near Shreveport, Louisiana, who migrated to San Francisco just in time to catch the tail end of the hippie movement. Primed on a musical diet of Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart, in early 1972 they rented a warehouse in the city’s then-cheap Mission district — now the ninth ring of tech-hipster hell — and fitted it out with a studio, film sets and installations.
As Cryptic Corporation treasurer Jay Clem recalls, the rule was “If you’re going to hang out, you have to help.” Their building became a kind of community art center for the freaky, with graphic designers, musicians, photographers, dancers and street people volunteering their time to create wildly ambitious DIY projects like the quixotic 17-hour “musical comedy” “Vileness Fats.”
“Theory of Obscurity” is loaded with clips from The Residents’ deranged promo films and shows, and makes a case for them as innovators of the music video format. Yet while the doc notes several artists who have been influenced by them — like Devo and Ween — and shows their work on display at the Museum of Modern Art, it fails to address how influential their entire “anonymity-as-mystique” approach has been: Contemporary artists like Banksy and Daft Punk have taken a similar approach to even greater success.
Perhaps it’s that “S-word” that sticks in the craw of the Cryptic Corporation, whose own output was too weird and often too abrasive to ever connect with the mass market. Obscurity is its own reward, it seems, and one that will be increasingly hard to achieve in the relentlessly wired, zero-privacy vortex we are all being sucked into.