Reservations Required

By Jay Cocks

Time, November 29, 1971

Anyone who enjoys being the target of a put-on will revel in Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. It's an act of undisguised aggression against the audience – rather like a mugging in a movie theater. Zappa makes movies the way he and his group, the Mothers of invention, make music – wildly, brazenly, eclectically.

“Touring can make you go crazy, ladies and gentlemen,” a voice proclaims early in the movie. “That is what 200 Motels is all about.” It would be fool-hardy to take Zappa at his word, of course. The film might just as easily be about hydrangea cultivation or the presidency of Chester. A. Arthur. If it can really be said to be “about” anything, 200 Motels is about the effect it has on the audience, which is not always pleasant and is occasionally exasperating and even disconcerting. It helps that the movie is sometimes exceedingly funny.

Part of the action takes place on a triumphantly phony set representing a town called “Centerville” (“a real nice place to raise your kids up”), where the Mothers are stranded. Another part takes place in a cavernous recording studio, where Zappa can fleetingly be seen leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of his composition 200 Motels, which is made up of equal parts of Spike Jones, John Cage and Buddy Holly. There are episodes involving lust-crazed groupies, a sleazy impresario named Rance Muhammitz (Theodore Bikel) and a character called Larry the Dwarf, who is played by Ringo Starr made up to look exactly like Frank Zappa. There is even an animated cartoon ostensibly about the “dental-hygiene dilemma,” which is set inside the mouth of none other than Donald Duck. Zappa and Co-Director Tony Palmer, shooting with video tape, overindulge in elaborate color effects that give the movie the touchingly antiquated look of a psychedelic record jacket. The craziness climaxes, fittingly enough, with full cast and chorus raising their voices in an irreverent anthem: “Lord, have mercy on the fate of this movie/And God bless the mind of the man in the street.” Mothers fans will be ecstatic, but the man in the street will need more than prayer to pull him through 200 Motels.