Movie musical clash: Jewison vs. Zappa

By Henry Mietkiewicz

The Varsity, 8 December 1971

Two movies are currently drawing big Toronto audiences. Both are from United Artists. Both are musicals. But here the similarity ends. While Norman Jewison has filmed Fiddler on the Roof along traditional lines and succeeded, Frank Zappa has attempted in 200 Motels to disassociate himself entirely from custom and failed.

Whether or not schmaltz like Fiddler appeals to you is simply a matter of taste. You may not prefer its strict adherence to classical movie-musical formulas. You may find it unnatural for the story to suddenly grind to a halt while a certain character pours his heart out in song. But, like it or not, Fiddler works. Led by the sly and powerful Chaim Topol as Tevye the Milkman, the entire cast turns in colorful and honest performances.

The set design and costuming in Fiddler deserve a special note of merit. Not even the smallest details have been overlooked by Jewison and company in the reconstruction of a poor, 19th century Russian village. All the actors, whether Jewish or not, understand their parts perfectly and go through the movements of religious custom with assurance and ease.

Forget the music for a while and judge Fiddler solely on the basis of acting and film technique. The wedding of the first daughter and Tevye's initial rejection of his third daughter are especially moving. The humor is also first-rate, particularly in Tevye's sizing up of his first son-in-law and in his attempts to marry off his daughter for a good price to a wealthy butcher. All through the film the photography never intrudes upon the action, giving instead a clear look at the hustle-bustle of the town of Anatevka and the effects of the seasons upon the villagers.

200 Motels, on the other hand, is a shapeless mess. Again, prejudices against the music must be dropped. But doing to only underlines the fact that the songs are covering up for a story-line that is quickly overworked and for musicians who fancy themselves actors. If your tastes tend towards The Mothers of Invention, fine and dandy; buy the soundtrack of this film and don't waste your time and money on the visuals.

In this flick Zappa attempts to let his fans gain some insight into the problems of taking a rock group on tour. A series of more or less connected episodes deal with drugs, egotistic band members, redneck towns and groupies. But once you've gotten over the thrill of actually seeing the Mothers walking and talking and generally goofing around, the film begins to wither.

Only two things make 200 Motels worthy of mention at all. The first is Ringo Starr who plays Larry the Dwarf, but is made up to resemble Zappa. Despite short and infrequent appearances, Starr manages to brighten up the proceedings and add a touch of seriousness or insanity (as the case may be) without the amateurishness or hamming of the rest of the participants. Also worth mentioning isa an incredibly funny 10-minute animation sequence which, on its own, is the best short subject of the year.

Seeing 200 Motels will provide you with the usual experience of hearing hardened freaks snickering at the word "penis" like adolescents who have sneaked info their first Restricted movie and heard "hell" mentioned onscreen. But if it's the film itself you are interested in, Fiddler on the Roof is an infinitely better musical.