Movie review of ‘Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents’: This documentary about the longtime art collective and rock band offers both history and voices of admiration, but precious little critical context. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
The Residents have been a weird presence in the rock-music firmament for more than 40 years.
Even if one has never heard the band’s avant-garde music or seen their bizarre performance-art concerts or fever-dream videos, chances are the most iconic image of the Residents — wearing tuxedos, top hats and huge masks that resemble eyeballs — is familiar.
So who are these always-disguised guys and why do they do what they do? The lively if thematically opaque documentary “Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents” tells us a little about the latter but nothing about the former, except in a wink-nudge way.
Movie Review ★★½
‘Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents,’ a documentary written and directed by Don Hardy Jr. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. SIFF Film Center.
A concept-art collective, the Residents jumped into the deep end of the experimental music pool beginning in 1970. The film’s vintage footage provides a sense of what the band’s early, anarchic club performances were like. It’s fascinating to see how the group evolved on its own terms by creating an independent record label and studio.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- The beloved 'Harlem Nutcracker' bankrupted choreographer Donald Byrd's earlier company. Two decades later, he's bringing it back.
- Ahamefule J. Oluo’s earlier show played off-Broadway. Now he’s back with 'Susan,' a new show about his mom.
- 'The Aeronauts' review: Up, up and away on a pretty, sweet hot-air-balloon adventure WATCH
- New on Hulu in December 2019: 'Reprisal,' 'Runaways,' 'Into the Dark,' 'Bumblebee'
- New on Netflix in December 2019: 'Marriage Story,' '6 Underground,' 'The Two Popes'
“Theory” offers glimpses of the Residents’ increasingly ambitious if surreal stage shows over the decades. Some of these capture the performers’ evocative movements and costumes, imparting the sense of a dreamscape meeting ancient human ritual. Such moments are frustratingly brief in the film.
Part of the Residents’ longtime mystique has been the band’s total anonymity, and that rule applies to “Theory.”
Chances are very good that the always-masked personnel has changed several times (who would know?), and among the many interviewees in this film are men of various ages who are obviously past members (though they speak of the Residents in the third person).
Unfortunately, “Theory” doesn’t tell us what any of this means. We hear statements of admiration for the band from such longtime fans as Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. But there is precious little context or critical thinking to make one truly care.