Frank Zappa's 200 Motels

By Dan Morgenstern

DownBeat, 9 December 1971

200 Motels. A Murakami Wolf/Bizarre production, distributed by United Artists. Directed by Frank Zappa (characterizations) and Tony Palmer ( visuals). Story and screenplay by Zappa. Cast includes Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, The Mothers of Invention, Janet Ferguson, Miss Lucy Offerall, Keith Moon, Jimmy Carl Black, Motorhead Sherwood, Martin Lickert, Don Preston, Dick Barber. Music composed and arranged by Zappa, performed by the Mothers and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Animations directed by Chuck Swenson.

The Mothers of Invention have been in existence since 1964, which makes them one of the oldest rock bands going (and a rock band is what Frank Zappa says they are). Their recorded output (including the soundtrack album of 200 Motels [United Artists UA-29956] and three repackages) now numbers 13 LPs, which, taken together, constitute a body of unique popular music, social satire, and hip weltanschaung. To this record of the Mothers now has been added a new dimension.

200 Motels is a very funny, original and entertaining film. It is Frank Zappa's film just as the Mothers are his group, and it is permeated with his personal vision. It is a film of many levels, but his own description, "a surrealistic documentary", is apt.

It deals with life on the road as experienced by a touring rock group, specifically The Mothers, and such real things as sex, food and drink, relationship of performer to audience, getting high, intra-group chemistry, groupies, interviews, etc., but these are not treated in a "realistic" manner.

Rather, as Zappa puts it, "the film is an extension and a projection of the group's specialized view of and participation in this intriguing area of contemporary human experience."

If the viewpoint is specialized, so are the means by which it is projected, both in terms of technique and expression, 200 Motels is the first feature-length film utilizing the vidéo tape-to-film process, and thus will be of interest even to people who cannot relate to its content. The process allows for all kinds of special effects obtainable while shooting (as opposed to in the lab), and many of these come off with startling impact. Additionally, there are interesting multiple montages effected in the video tape editing stage. The film was shot in seven days, video edition took 11 days, and processing at the 35mm film stage some three months. The film was brought in on time and at $40,000 under the low $600,000 budget (UA took it on after a number of other companies had rejected it).

These technical and economic details are relevant, since 200 Motels is an "experimental" and offbeat film of a type rarely touched by major studios. If it receives the kind of national (and international) distribution it merits, it will be interesting to see what audience response it gets. (The Mothers have a solid following, but have never had a hit album or single, and this is not your typical rock movie.)

A synopsis of the plot will not be offered here, since there is no story-line as such, and no chronological sequencing to the action. Suffice it to say that the time is now and the place a mythical Centerville, U.S.A., described in song as "a sealed tuna sandwich." There is a motel of course, a local hangout named Redneck Eats, and a main street. But some of the scenes also take place in the studio (no attempt at disguise, which adds another level), and the Royal Philharmonic becomes part of the action (there are some lovely reaction shots, and many of the players seemed to enjoy being spattered with a flour-like substance in the final mass scene).

Actual performances by the Mothers (and the Philharmonic) are interspersed with the dramatic sequences, and there is a lot of music in the film, most of it very good. Zappa appears as himself only in these performance scenes, but a character named Larry the Dwarf, portrayed by Ringo Starr made up as Zappa, is very much part of the action, and Ringo played his part with relish.

Janet Ferguson and Miss Lucy Offerall are superb as the groupies, and their discussion of rock musicians as sexual objects (as they view the Mothers cruising down Main Street) is hilarious. Throughout, the treatment of sex is direct and funny, striking just the right tone.

Jimmy Carl Black is well cast as the redneck Lonesome Cowboy Burt, Don Preston is marvelous as the concoctor of "vile foamy liquids" designed to yield the high to end all highs, Theodore Bikel is good as the pseudo-sinister Rance Muhammitz, equipped with smoking briefcase, and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of the Mothers are most convincing in "modified versions" of themselves.

There is a delightful animated sequence created by Chuck Swenson, representative of the kind of first quiet and then rampant insanity brought on by watching television in a motel room while on the road. Entitled Dental Hygiene Dilemma, it is a little masterpiece, quite the best example of contempary animated film I've seen. In the course of events, the hero, trying to talk himself into quitting the group to become a superstar, concocts an elixir from a soiled, stolen towel, and his comments merit quoting:

Heh Heh Heh! Ahmet Ertegun used this towel as a bath mat six weeks ago at a rancid motel in Orlando, Florida with the highest mildew rating of any commercial lodging facility within the territorial limits of the United States, naturally excluding tropical possessions....

If you don't think that's funny, you probably won't enjoy the picture. I enjoyed it thoroughly, with only minor reservations: it goes on a bit too long, some things don't work, and there is almost too much to take in during some of the scenes. But the latter of course, can be remedied by seeing it again, and is typical of first movies by gifted filmmakers.

Zappa most certainly is that. He has long been interested in making films, but is not, he says, a movie buff. Thus, his methods and vision are both his own in this medium as well as in music, and unlike most artists in this day and age, he has something to say and a fresh and funny way of saying it.

The score, from the opening Semi-Fraudulent Direct-from-Hollywood Overture to the concluding Strictly Genteel, is first-rate Zappa and always well integrated with the visual elements. The long guitar solo he gets off during the Mothers set is proof that he can play his ass off too.

I don't know if Frank Zappa is a genius, but he is certainly a very talented man, and an honest one. He can even poke fun at his own egocentricity, and his humor never becomes dehumanizing or malicious. 200 Motels is good, clean dirty fun, a genuine work of the imagination, and highly recommended.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)