Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels
“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa
PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.
- Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
- The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
- Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
- Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
- 200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
- In his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motels “one of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.“
- In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.
Original trailer for 200 Motels
COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry the Dwarf AS Frank Zappa in 200 Motels,” but that description would have fit the movie as well as any other. Perhaps the only truly succinct description of what’s going on here is given by a narrator, who says “touring can make you crazy, ladies and gentlemen. That is precisely what 200 Motels is all about.” Of course, I’m pretty sure Frank Zappa, who had already released songs called “The Duke of Prunes” and “Son of Suzy Creamcheese” was crazy long before he jotted down the scattered gags and ideas that comprise this movie and compiled them into a script of sorts. The disconnected nature of the film partly comes from Zappa’s temperament and his weird sense of humor, but the sprawling project also gave him an outlet for many creative frustrations and annoyances, including his contempt for musicians who cared more about sex, drugs, money and fame than about the music. It also marks the beginning of his desire to expand his own repertoire from grungy psychedelia and comedy music into serious classical compositions—albeit, serious classical compositions that revolved around penis jokes.
Zappa himself is barely in the movie and never speaks (or sings). He’s only briefly glimpsed in concert footage. His spirit haunts the movie, however, and his very absence is a meta-joke. Ringo Starr, adopting Zappa’s trademark facial hair, stands in for the bandleader, explaining “he made me do it. He’s such a creep.” Zappa also appears as a paper cutout stuffed into a purple sweater in the background of certain scenes. His band references him as an omniscient figure, and believe he spies on them through an empty beer bottle. As paranoid as the band is about Zappa, he’s equally suspicious of them, penning several sketches in which musicians collude to leave the group—most notably, the cartoon interlude titled “Dental Hyegine Dilemma,” which sees a drugged-up band member (presumably bassist Jeff Simmons, who quit the group just before filming began) reject a good spirit in favor of a devil who convinces him to break away from “Zappa’s comedy music” and start his own band. The imp also persuades him to steal ashtrays from the motel and to roll up and smoke a six-week old unwashed bath mat.
Other than appeasing the great god Frank, the other Mothers only care about three things—scoring dope, getting paid, and getting laid. The characters in this “surrealistic documentary” drift in and out of various skits, animations, and drug trips, also finding time to perform numbers like “Mystery Roach,” “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and an oratorio in praise of the penis. A major highlight sees lead singers Kaylan and Volman taking a “trip” to everytown “Centerville,” a hicksburg of churches and liquor stores and bathed in wavy zebra stripes that distort the small town parade of priests, drunken construction workers and majorettes. Want more? There’s topless groupies, a chorus of Klansmen, and a closing benediction that starts with the words, “Lord have mercy on the people in England for the terrible food these people must eat…” There is no plot, just recurring characters. The Who drummer Keith Moon plays a groupie dressed like Sally Field in “The Flying Nun.” Folk singer/actor Theodore Bickel is an omniscient Master of Ceremonies who brings Mark Volman an unsolicited cheeseburger and demands he signs for the delivery—in blood. Bickel’s character (or at least one of them) also gives a healthy reminder to the band, and the audience: “You must remember that within the conceptual framework of this filmic event, nothing really matters. It is entirely possible for several subjective realities to coexist.”
Despite the controversies revolving around co-director Tony Palmer (who first trashed the film, then attempted to cash in on its cult status years later by releasing an unauthorized DVD that billed itself as “Tony Palmer’s Film of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels”) his contributions cannot be diminished. 200 Motels‘ trippy look, consisting of images laid one on top of the other, often tinted or solarized, was achieved by shooting on videotape and compositing several negatives together to make one roll of 35 mm film. Although the effects look antiquated and quaint today, at the time, no one had ever used this process before, and even the negative reviewers marveled at what they were seeing. What seem today to be relatively simple effects, such as when the film jogs back and forth in forward and reverse, were novel at the time. In one scene, Keith Moon’s nun, color-graded into pastel blue, appears over an abstract background, over which additional negative image footage of the orchestra can barely be made out–scored to Zappa’s “The Pleated Gazelle,” with operatic singers and comic sound effects dubbed in as Moon pops pills into his mouth. With the visual overlays mimicking Zappa’s layered music, Palmer could justifiably be credited with creating the visual accompaniment to the 200 Motels suite.
Basically, 200 Motels is a freak-out revue that comes off like a particularly undisciplined 90-minute episode of Monty Python interspersed with obscene songs and cacophonous compositions. It’s the perfect definition of an uneven movie, but it’s worth checking out; if for nothing else, as a document of the anarchic psychedelic era and of Zappa’s deranged genius. It’ll blow your mind, if not expand it. Most people will wonder what they were smoking when they came up with this; Zappa fans will wonder where they can get some.
El Rob Hubbard adds: Best watched in the wee hours of the early morning, this early shot-on-video/transferred-to-film feature is an interesting curio. There’s a hint of plot floating about, but it’s ephemeral and disappears if one attempts to grab at it. The best explanation of the goings on is the statement, “touring will make you crazy.” And the craziness is stirred to a froth with the characters weaving in and out throughout the film: members of Zappa’s band (including Howard Kaylen and Mark Volman from The Turtles), Theodore Bikel as dealmaker Rance Mohummanz, Ringo Starr disguised as Zappa, Keith Moon as a nun, with some of the GTOs (“Girls Together Outrageously”) and Zappa glimpsed in long shots conducting the orchestra. About halfway through, you get the sense your having your leg pulled consistently, but if you’re a Zappa fan, it’s a put-on you’ll put up with.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“No self-proclaimed surrealistic documentary can be all bad when it has a score composed by Frank Zappa, the Orson Welles of the rock music world, played by Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and the Royal Philharmonic, as well as some extraordinarily clever visual effects, achieved by the use of videotape, and a title like ‘200 Motels’… ‘200 Motels’ is not all bad, but because it’s a movie with so many things going on simultaneously, it becomes too quickly exhausting—in actual effect, soporific.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Whatever else it may be, Frank Zappa’s ‘200 Motels’ is a joyous, fanatic, slightly weird experiment in the uses of the color videotape process. If there is more that can be done with videotape, I do not want to be there when they do it… overbearing is the word for this movie. It assaults the mind with everything on hand.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“The special visual effects available at the time were used to create some amazing surreal images and optical illusions. This is certainly not for everyone, and sometimes the picture causes eyestrain, but, for the adventurous, TWO HUNDRED MOTELS is definitely a film to experience.”–TV Guide
IMDB LINK: 200 Motels (1971)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
200 Motels – The 200 Motels page at this Zappa fansite has some info not found elsewhere, like a curated selection of quotes from those involved and a reconstructed “epic” setlist including songs that were cut
200 Motels (1971) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’ 200 Motels page is a little bare, with only the trailer, synopsis, and a few notes
200 Motels on DVD – This article, intended as a scathing (and well-deserved) attack on Tony Palmer’s unauthorized 2010 DVD release of the film, begins with extensive background information
Frank Zappa settles an old score after 42 years: Banned in 1971, ‘200 Motels’ will finally be played in the UK – Independent article about Zappa’s battles with British censors over the movie
LIST CANDIDATE: 200 MOTELS (1971) – This site’s original 200 Motels review
The Real Frank Zappa Book – Zappa’s autobiography only touches on 200 Motels, but it gives a good overview of the running themes of the artist’s life and work
DVD INFO: After many years without a legitimate DVD release, in 2015 MGM finally authorized printings (buy) in the DVD-R format. The audio and visual quality are nothing special, but the film was originally shot on video at the time, so it is unlikely to find better.
Tony Palmer’s unauthorized DVD was pulled from the market; the visual quality was terrible (including an image that was improperly stretched from the original 4:3 aspect ratio to a 16:9 presentation), but it did have a commentary track from the co-director.
(This movie was originally nominated for review by “Bruce,” who called it “very funny and very weird” and advised us to “take a break from you ‘heavy’ films and watch this one.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)