200 Motels: What's The Deal?

By Rick Bolsom

Creem, February 1972

“What’s the deal?” Somebody gave weird old Frank Zappa a bunch of money to make a moving picture. Is that just like years ago when somebody gave Zappa a smaller bunch of money to make records? Well, sort of similar.

Over the last 6 years Zappa, both with the Mothers of Invention and under his own banner has made record albums. He has also written the music and words for these albums. Whatever the source of his inspiration, be it taco and burger stands in the Valley, Varèse and Stockhausen, the Moonglows and the Codsters or his friends, Zappa has set a pace in expanding rock and roll creativity.

He has become the big musical editor of reality, our orchestrating rock and roll social historian and critic-in-residence. Though he has never made music that set the world dancing he has opened doors for others and a few minds as well. Whatever you may think of his compositions, whatever you may think of his technique and performance, his public positions, his jaundiced view of America and some of its noblest institutions (like the back seat of your cat for instance), Frank Zappa has always been an innovator.

Think back on the psychedelia extremis of Freak Out, the rock and roll revival launched by Reuben and the Jets, the classic satire of Absolutely Free, the musical excellence of Hot Rats and the almost impenetrable conception of Lumpy Gravy just for example.

All this has a lot to do with 200 Motels, Zappa’s first public film.

200 Motels is the rock and roll/music movie that the Beatles never made. It's the first, the very first rock and roll/music movie. Its basis in reality is music. It lives because there is rock and roll. It got financed because of the music and it was music before it was a film.

That’s right, 200 Motels is a music movie in the greatest sense. It is a film created as a piece of music, using techniques that may not be revolutionary in a very advanced orchestra, but are unique in movie making.

In fact, the film is the ultimate (for now) and logical extension of the entire body of work, both on record and on stage, of Zappa and the Mothers. Not only is it unique in terms of its structure but also in the video tape techniques which allowed the creation of the optical effects which alone are worth the price of admission.

aside: An awful lot of people dismiss Zappa as not being a true rock and roll musician because his composition is dependent on things other than simple chord changes and harmonies. Now a lot of people are going to dismiss him as a rock and roll film maker. It’s very hard to get so many people lined up to dismiss you. But Zappa’s creative output has always been the alternate selection in a world of Top 40 and the impact of this movie will give film freaks an alternate of their very own.

200 Motels is a film conceived in Holiday Inns. It represents bits and pieces of life on the road with a rock and roll band and how everything gets to look when you are alive on the road. Of course, it’s more than just that. That’s just the form. It’s also hysterically funny.

Zappa mostly sits in his basement in Laurel Canyon and works. He is a compulsive worker and when on the road he writes when not performing or rehearsing. Sometimes he writes while the band performs. Sometimes they are simultaneous actions. Meanwhile he is also looking out around him and checking the events and people for more material. Say something funny within 50 feet of Frank Zappa and you might well hear it on an album. (Honest, that’s what all the guys in the band say in the movie. That’s also what Larry the Dwarf says in the movie. Larry, by the way, is played by Beatle drummer Ringo Starr. He looks strangely like the Mothers’ guitar player. It’s all part of the plot).

Zappa’s main themes, the other side of American life as typified by the, southern California style, as well as national sex habits, life values in general and life’s repugnant side in particular, either drive you off steaming or get your attention onto what he’s saying. These themes, used throughout his material in the part, are, or course, the base for 200 Motels.

“Centerville, a nice town to . . . ”, groupies, rednecks, drug freak outs and monsters, all flavored with a touch of concentration camp, all fair spots to stop on the tour.

The film itself: now that’s something. Zappa has always wanted to work with tools over and above those provided by the members of his band. There have been several memorable Mothers meetings with symphony orchestras and musicians and a lot of Zappa experimentation with film before, but never has he had the opportunity and the money to put it all together in a controlled package. His Uncle Meat, the soundtrack of which was released as an album a couple of years ago, has never been finished even though much of the footage is not only truly documentary but has already been shot. The reason the picture has lain dormant: no money.

Shit, back to this one.

Zappa’s basic forces for 200 Motels: The Mothers (current), some Mothers past (Jimmy Carl Black, Jim Sherwood, Don Preston); Theodore Bikel (in the lead, sort of); Ringo Starr as the devious Larry the Dwarf; Keith Moon as the Hot Nun (groupie); Martin Lickert, Ringo’s ex-chauffeur, plays Jeff Simmons, ex-Mothers bass player; Janet Ferguson and Miss Lucy as the groupies; Mothers’ roadie Dick Barber plays the vacuum cleaner; Miss Pamela Miller plays a rock and roll newspaper reporter; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays itself as do the Top Score Singers (a choral group) and there are also a number of dancers appearing in places likely as well as un. And he also had the facilities of Pinewood Studios in London and expert help in choreography, direction, etc.

And now the crux of it all, the film created from the amalgamation.

The form for the story is life on the road. The unreal world of a traveling rock and roll band. The warped intensity that the road gives to individual events and to all events which then tend to converge into a single reality.

The overkill of setting up, playing, leaving, arriving, meeting people, walking down another main street, living in a carbon copy motel room . . . a copy motel room . . . a motel room . . . room . . . all the same motel room . . . all the same reality . . . every different place tends to be the last and the next place. Every different fact of life in that town becomes life in all towns and in no towns. Every little bit of every waking minute becomes a repetitive game and the tunnel vision that is the result is reflected in this moving picture.

Now given that premise what would you do? Make a documentary? Recreate scenes abstracted from several events? Write a comedy and hire the Monkees to play the lead? Give it up as a drag? Well, any one would be O.K. But, based on Zappa’s track record, he did what he did. He satirized, he glamorized, he fantasized. He put it to music so that, if it moved you, you could dance to it. Just as back in 1967 the Mothers had the nerve to open their act as an Off Broadway review, and invite the theatre critics, the years, not having taken their toll, find the Mothers (of today) flashing Zappa’s maniacal wit out from the once-silvered screen.

200 Motels is a multi-level, non-objective, out of synch with reality experience that people not oriented to the style will find very confusing. It is a multi-colored, phantasmagoric, flashing, crashing, assault of sound and sight. It will leave you wasted either in the beginning, the middle or the end, according to your own ability to respond, evaluate and retain. To come out of your first viewing of the picture with a clear idea of what happened is very unlikely. To come out of the first time through humming the tunes is also unlikely, even if you heard the album first.

Of course, there’s a soundtrack album from the film. A two record set of tunes that are both in and not in the movie. To keep things popping along, the sequence of the album doesn’t match that of the film, either. If you happen upon the album before you see the film, don’t try too hard to follow it all. It doesn’t work that way. If, on the other hand, you see the film first, don’t hope that the album will thrill your memory cells and carry you along that magic path of remembrance like your Love Story soundtrack does. This album goes into your Mothers’ pile and has a place in relation to some of the stuff on Chunga’s Revenge and the Live at the Fillmore East album, in both of which you’ll find more songs and music relating to 200 Motels, in fact written for it.

The movie hit me a lot like Freak Out did back in 1966. Amazing if you get into it, but it could give you a real headache if you don’t want to listen. Zappa sort of confirmed this when he said “200 Motels is a film version of Freak Out. It’s the ultimate extension of the Freak Out album cover.”

There have been a lot of other freak outs (see the lower case f) on film, for instance Satyricon and El Topo. There have been a lot of rock and roll and music based documentaries from Monterey Pop and Woodstock on up and down. There have also been loads of films based on operas and operettas and other musical things. But as in the Freak Out album, Zappa has taken the time and trouble to assimilate all the styles as they have been established and not only meld them together, but add another crazed dimension to the whole package.

When you see 200 Motels, and I hope you do, let it dance in front of your face and run around through your head. That’s the first time. Then, in other next times, fit the pieces together. If reading this makes you feel that the picture is a multi-level jigsaw puzzle, you’re very right. If reading this stuff makes you think that 200 Motels is a maniacal disjointed trip, you’re wrong.

If bright colors and loud noise bother you, you might well find yourself outside the theatre of your choice before the film is over. If not, you’ll probably sit through a couple of showings. At that point, of course, they will come and take you away.

And, if on a whole other level you are familiar with Mothers’ albums and shows, you will find some clues in the film to the particular thrust of many of the things that Zappa has played with before.

If this has at all been the least bit confusing to you, and you want to know from a more traditional point of review whether you should go see this movie, then:

Frank Zappa has created a masterful audio and visual feast. His character directions are honed to perfection as he portrays musicians on the road, groupies, rednecks (lovable and otherwise), musicians not on the road, heartland America and other facts and fancies of life.
Tony Palmer’s visual direction is well done and does give a certain strange cohesiveness to the multi-level imagination of Zappa, who also wrote the screenplay and composed and arranged the music.
The use in a commercial film, for the first time, as far as I know, of the video tape to film process is milked for all it’s worth. The flexibility in shooting a film using this system and the range it gives the director land editor in achieving every conceivable visual effect will establish a trend in film making.
The cast includes the Mothers of Invention, both past and present, and a highly unlikely mixture of other performers. Ringo Starr at his comedic finest plays Larry the Dwarf (a parody of Zappa) and Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, a very friendly Lucifer figure, turns in a creditable bit of insanity. Keith Moon (Who drummer himself) as the Hot Nun is disjointedly funny and particular mention must be made of Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall who play the groupies with wit, conviction and great presence.
The choreography by Gillian Layne beautifully melds with the overall surreal quality of the film and the dancers are particularly talented as well. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Elger Howarth, and the Top Score Singers, directed by David Van Asch, add dimension not only to Zappa’s compositions but are used visually as an integral part of some of the subplots. The “found” footage of the orchestra and the singers not only adds measurably to the portrayal of the story but gives added depth to their individual performances. Special mention must also be made of an animated sequence appearing in the film, “Dental Hygiene Dilemma.” Not only is the animation and concept brilliant but its overall bizarre nature will be considered, by some, to be the singular outstanding piece of footage in the movie. Mickey Mouse was weird at times, but nothing like this.

So much for that.

A dedicated Mothers freak, and only a very dedicated Mothers freak might just ask himself, after seeing the flick, why Zappa hadn’t gotten even more bizarre? Why perhaps he hadn’t put more into the film? For instance the material in the Fillmore Live album. No one in 200 Motels does “The Mudshark.” I wondered about that too, so I asked Zappa.

“My answer is” he said, “I’ll give you $679,000 and see what you can do with it up against a bunch of unions and an orchestra, a director that quits five times while you’re shooting and given all those other variables . . . let’s see how far you go.”

Maybe next time United Artists will see its way clear to lay a couple of million on Zappa and he’ll have more than seven days to shoot a film and we’ll see just how bizarre it can really be. But in the meantime, you really ought to see 200 Motels a few times.

It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s weird. It’s insane. It’ a peek into Zappa’s mmd that is made easier, not harder, to understand, despite your first confusion, by the visual dimension.

Zappa has been with us for a lot of years now. He’s going to be doing his things for quite a while longer. He may well outlive (creatively) all his contemporaries and so become a bigger and bigger part of this culture we have here.

Early Zappa will one day, and it may be soon, become nostalgia, and when it does, 200 Motels will be on your own private late show.