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Music Video Distributors presents
The Residents Play Wormwood (1999)

"Now, the idea here is not to trash Jesus, but maybe, just maybe, shine a little light back into some dark corners and show them the Good Book is also the Bad Book."
- Mr. Skull

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: November 09, 2005

Stars: The Residents
Other Stars: Molly Harvey
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material)
Run Time: 01h:43m:53s
Release Date: October 25, 2005
UPC: 022891447696
Genre: alternative

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It was only a matter of time. The avant-garde San Francisco band The Residents has over the last 30-odd years tackled a wide variety of topics from The Beatles to American composers to politics to refugees to Elvis to Eskimo culture to commercial jingles and more. So sooner or later the shibboleth of religion would have to come into their sights, and the result was the late 1990s album Wormwood, collecting various dark tales from the Bible in the misanthropic style of the anonymous band. The Residents also made one of their rare tours out of the album, bringing the songs to life on stage with the aid of a few friends. This DVD documents the live performance on July 16, 1999 in Bonn, Germany, as transmitted via webcast for Museumsmeile.

Mr. Skull (the one member of the band not wearing a top-hatted eyeball mask for the performance) serves as the emcee, providing a little prologue disclaiming any bad intent. As the quote notes, however, they're primarily interested in the lurid tales of sex and murder in the Bible and speculate on why, exactly, these form such a substantial part of a supposedly divinely inspired tome. Along the way they certainly make plenty of observations about the human condition, although they may not be pleasant observations for the most part. The bulk of the tales (all but the last one) are derived from the Old Testament, and the DVD helpfully provides the appropriate biblical citations should you care to read more for yourself.

Things start off with a bang with one of the best songs on the album, How to Get a Head, the story of Salome (Molly Harvey). But it's not just the tale of decapitation and seven veils, but an exploration of teen sexuality and exploitation, given a darkly comic cast. The Lamentations of Jeremaiah are treated as little more than whiny moping in the aptly titled Mister Misery. Jael and Sisera from the book of Judges provide the basis for a look at the intersection of militarism, violence and sex, with Jael haunted by guilt but also fascinated by her misdeeds. The Bible's weird fascination with chopping off foreskins is at the center of the tales of Dinah (Genesis 34), Moses, and Abraham, all of which are submitted with substantial cringing by the clearly male Mr. Skull. God's peculiar ethical standards are also brought into question through not only the story of Abraham and Isaac but also Cain and Abel; why exactly does God prefer Abel's dead baby animals over Cain's offering of nuts and berries? Things get a little silly in the tale of Belshazzar's Feast from the book of Daniel, God's Magic Finger. Humor is also present in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Fire Fall, though the weird family dynamics of Lot's kin are held up as particularly appaling. No less so is the misogyny of Burn Baby Burn, in which Jephthah burns his daughter alive because God told him to. Where have I heard that excuse before?

The latter section of the performance is interesting for its examination of the most dysfunctional of families, the House of David, examined in a quartet of stories that feature adultery, incest, rape, rebellion, murder, betrayal, and all other sorts of scriptural goodness. The dark style of late Residents music is perfectly suited to these gloomy tales of woe, mimicking the cesspool of human relationships by the murky sound and alternately howling and rasping vocals. These aren't exactly pleasant tunes to listen to, but they have a power to them that's appropriate for the subject matter. The finale is probably the most controversial piece in the show, Judas Saves, the lone installment from the New Testament that suggests perhaps the wrong man is being worshipped. A concluding ascension into heaven certainly won't make the religious happy, but they'd probably be better off giving this show a wide clearance in any event since there's plenty here to offend the pious. As usual for The Residents' stage shows, the staging is fairly rudimentary, with little scenery and a handful of props. Many of the characters appear wearing birdlike masks that make them seem like a broken-down Commedia del'Arte. But The Residents don't ever take the ordinary route.

The songs:

How to Get a Head
Mister Misery
Tent Peg in the Temple
God's Magic Finger
Dinah and the Unclean Skin
Cain and Abel
Burn Baby Burn
Fire Fall
King of Kings
Bridegroom of Blood
David 1) David's D**k 2) Bathsheba Bathes 3) Attitude Is Everything 4) Hanging by His Hair
Judas Saves

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Since it was taken from video for a webcast, there are numerous issues with the visuals here. Although color is good and quite vibrant for a live show, the picture is very soft and rather muddy. Video shimmer is present throughout, giving a strobing effect that's somewhat annoying. But considering the source material, it probably can't look a lot better than it does.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The sole audio track is a pounding 5.1 DD that offers excellent surround and presence. Recording levels are quite high so you may be in for a bit of a shock when the disc spins up, but there's no significant clipping. The murky sound is part of the intended effect (it's that way on the album too) and not a defect of the audio. This is a fine aural representation of the live show.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 13 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Easter Egg
Extras Review: The disc sports both a "Play All" feature that runs the entire show, or one can select songs or Mr. Skull's intros separately. An easter egg hidden on title 4 (I couldn't find any way to access it from the menus) includes the encore tune, a spirited if demented rendition of Give Me That Old Time Religion ("It was good enough for Charlton Heston, it's good enough for me!") that makes a fitting coda to this suite. A set of subtitles really would have been useful, though.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Darkly comic and vicious musical look at the Bible's lurid side that may not be accessible to those unused to The Residents' weird ways, but a thoughtful demonstration of the nastier aspects of the Good Book.


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