The Theory of Obscurity is, by definition, a hypocritical stance to take. A band that has revelled and enjoyed praise and accomplishment without becoming a household name attempt to do so with a documentary that doesn’t capture who or what they wish to represent. But a documentary on the brilliant talents of the unknown band, The Residents, is well worth throwing the curtain ajar, even if it does ruin the meaning of the music. Avant-garde music is a hard nut to crack, and usually not worth the hassle, but something is endearing about The Residents that has appealed to audiences, including myself. It may be too early to tell if I’m a fan of their work, perhaps it is too late for me, either way, I’m not sure what I could have possibly wanted from Theory of Obscurity.
Surely their allure and image were engaging enough to warrant a feature documentary? But aside from vivid scenes and oddities of culture, there isn’t much else to display. If director Don Hardy Jr. did not want to reveal the identities of The Residents, then what else was there to showcase? Collating their musical history is nigh on impossible considering that, similar to their names and lifestyle, their production is shrouded in mystery. Listening to only a handful of their tracks will open a door to the wild, unique scope of their music, more so than this documentary could manage. The effort is there, that is never in doubt, but again the relevance or need for this documentation comes into question.
The Residents is a water-cooler topic, something to discuss with like-minded friends and fans who may know the odd pop culture reference that has attracted them to this band’s sphere of influence. Following as best and consistent a timeline it can, Theory of Obscurity is rather stringent in what it wishes to discuss. It does not flow naturally, where tangents should be there is only strict regiment and a desire to follow, to the letter, the formula of any moderately successful music documentary. Somewhat successful, indeed, but that is not the quality one should strive for, especially not when documenting something so shrouded in mystery. Is there any other way Hardy could have gone? No, not exactly, but not even trying is a far greater let-down than the results of an innovative, yet shambolic piece of work.
We may never know who The Residents are, but we do know of their impact. It is deep and flows through audiences across the globe. Their lack of presence is their biggest attraction, and how they keep themselves alive with bizarre imagery and an unprecedented ability to tap into the pop culture mainstream is a unique, once in a lifetime experience. Theory of Obscurity documents that well, it knows it has no chance of unveiling the men behind the mask, and Hardy is clear that his intentions are to do anything but reveal them. Listen to the albums, watch the clips of their odd projects, and revel in their beauty. Theory of Obscurity is a collage of these, and once audiences realise that, it’ll make this documentary feel wholly obsolete.