A documentary about the Residents seems antithetical to the very idea of these Bay Area enigmas. Mystery is the experimental American band's natural habitat, their enduring shtick. Instantly identifiable by their eyeball-and-top-hat masks, the Residents became quintessential outsiders. Better than most, the Residents rejected the cult of personality that drives the entertainment industry. So Don Hardy's Theory of Obscurity necessarily has a void at its core: We don't really find out who the Residents are, but we discover the details of their mad methods and receive testimonials from their many avid fans—including Matt Groening, Les Claypool, Dean Ween, and Penn Jillette—while getting inside dope from operatives who worked (and still work) for the Cryptic Corp., the group's umbrella company. Hardy also deploys lots of archival and live footage, especially from the Residents' 40th-anniversary Wonder of Weird Tour in 2013.
As we hear in a voice-over: “For the Residents to be anonymous gives them license to do anything.” True to that sentiment, the Residents proved their avant-garde cred in many ways, from their emphasis on visuals in performances to their parodistic cover songs to their detourned album art to their use of emerging technologies (Laserdiscs, CD-ROMs, podcasts) to the ways they interacted with their surprisingly large fan base.
The Residents' members hailed from a conservative northern Louisiana town, but soon realized that if they wanted to fly their freak flags, they needed to migrate to San Francisco (this was the late 1960s). They viewed the burgeoning psychedelic-rock scene and free-love attitudes as more congenial to their strain of artistic mischief. But they realized they were too weird even for California's acid lovers, so they burrowed into their own extremely peculiar, idiosyncratic world. In their naïveté, the Residents anonymously sent their first demos to Warner Bros.—because its roster had Captain Beefheart. Warner rejected them, of course, and the letter was addressed to “Residents.” Thus they were named.
Theory of Obscurity's title refers to the mysterious figure N. Senada's dictum that artists do their best work away from media glare and while unconcerned about popularity. From the start, the Residents embraced that axiom, forming their own self-contained creative and business ecosystem, making them precursors to the way musicians have been forced to operate in the wake of the music industry's slow-motion collapse. They've done exactly what they've wanted to for 45 years, and now their entire recorded catalog and an eyeball mask reside in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. Theory of Obscurity revels in the paradox of this most notorious band of unknowns while poking at the embers of the myth, illustrating why the Residents will always be paragons of musical independence and inspirations to weirdos everywhere.