Dallas — The Residents aren't exactly a band in the strict four-plus member combo sense. Often referred to as a "sound collective," the avant-garde/multimedia group has released more than 60 recordings in its decades-long career and occasionally gone on tour, maintaining a revolving lineup and performing in elaborate masks and costumes whenever and wherever they appear. No one has ever admitted to being a member, and many—including their fans and the band itself—maintain that they don't actually exist.
For many people, making a film about a band whose primary claim to fame is that they actively avoid fame in order to maintain artistic integrity—the extent that their identities have remained unknown for 40 years—would be an act of extreme masochism at best.
Not so for filmmaker Don Hardy Jr., whose documentary Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents screens at the Oak Cliff Film Festival at 3:30pm Saturday at The Kessler Theater, a venue the Residents performed at in February 2013 during their 40th anniversary tour. Hardy was turned onto the band by his co-workers.
"I had mainly been doing social issues docs, and had been looking to do a music doc for a while," he says. "I was immediately hooked, and the timing was perfect since they were about to start their anniversary tour.
"We sat down with the execs at the Cryptic Corporation and went on the road two weeks later. Keeping in the spirit of the Residents, we just jumped right in and did it."
Hardy received unprecedented access to the group's massive archive of material through their management at Cryptic. He and his crew also had a great deal of behind-the-scenes access during the tour; however, only snippets featuring the band backstage are used, and they are never seen out of costume.
"Most documentaries go to a central character and let them tell their story while following them around," says Hardy." We obviously couldn't do that. We went to their collaborators and let them tell the story instead."
Hardy interviewed 45 people for Theory of Obscurity, including Cryptic executives; academics, past collaborators such as Penn Jillette; and entertainers who cite the group as an influence such as The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and musicians Les Claypool (Primus), Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), Dean Ween (Ween), and Jerry Casale (Devo). It makes for an impressionistic portrait of the enigmatic group, one that Hardy says reveals more than some might realize.
"The takeaway for me was that the Residents are seen as four guys. It's the Beatles concept," he says. "It's always been an open line-up though, with different people brought in, some credited and some not.
"So if you're watching the interviewees then you really are meeting the Residents. It's a total down-the-rabbit-hole concept."
» The Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents screens at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 12 at the Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis St., Oak Cliff.
» This year's Oak Cliff Film Festival boasts nearly two dozen feature length programs and five blocks of short films, with an overarching theme of DIY and No-Wave aesthetics, plus an emphasis on music-related documentaries. Badges are $175, and single ticket admission for most films is $10. (More information and a complete festival schedule are available here.)
» TheaterJones is co-hosting the Filmmaker Happy Hour, 5-7 p.m. on Friday, June 12 at the Turner House in the Winnetka Heights neighbhor of Oak Cliff, at 401 N. Rosemont Ave. Come by for some cocktails, croquet, snacks and ticket giveaways.