50 Years Ago: Frank Zappa Channels Touring Chaos in ‘200 Motels’
Ringo Starr — dressed as Frank Zappa, mustache and all, yet playing someone named “Larry the Dwarf” – descends on wires from the ceiling of a TV studio while holding a prop genie lamp. Our Master of Ceremonies Rance Muhammitz (Theodore Bikel) attempts to decipher these actions, but his canned interview questions aren’t much help.
“[Zappa] made me do it,” Larry says into an enormous microphone. “He wants me to fuck the girl with the harp.” The camera cuts to the Who’s Keith Moon, decked out in white makeup and a nun’s outfit, who peers through the instrument’s strings. “The magic lamp, he wants me to stuff it up her and rub it,” Larry continues, erupting into maniacal laughter, eyes wide and lifeless.
And this scene, with all its queasy middle-school humor and surreal flourishes, might actually be the most normal sequence in all of 200 Motels, Zappa’s debut film — and perhaps the most divisive project within his sprawling catalog.
Despite the whimsicality of that opening — and just about everything that follows it — 200 Motels wasn’t the product of a rock star’s acid trip indulgence. (In fact, the composer was widely known for his anti-substance stance: That same year, he told an interviewer that drugs had stripped young people of “a lot of their ambition.”) Instead, the movie developed from a simple, concrete premise: depicting the life — the boredom, the hustle, the burnout, the occasional paranoia — of a touring musician.
Bringing to life his own script, which he envisioned as a “surrealistic documentary,” Zappa recruited a ragtag cast — including his entire backing band, the Mothers of Invention. Zappa wound up with a 98-minute whirlwind that, in many ways, feels like a visual expansion on his smuttiest, most freewheeling ‘70s music.
Watch the Trailer for Frank Zappa's '200 Motels'
Premiering on Oct. 29, 1971, 200 Motels was “at once a reportage of real events and an extrapolation of them,” Zappa noted in the film's press kit. “Granting the fact the [the Mothers] tend to operate somewhere on the outermost fringes of your real-life Rock & Roll Consciousness, 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. In other words, [200 Motels] deals with things like: Groupies[,] Life On The Road[,] Relationship To Audience[,] Group Personality-Chemistry[,] Macrobiotic Food & Tie-Die Shirts.”
Zappa's interest in filmmaking dated back to 1958, when he first started shooting homemade 8mm movies. And he made some unique innovations in exploring the intersection of music and cinema: Years later, he’d incorporate backstage craziness and Bruce Bickford’s wild animation into the concert film Baby Snakes. But stepping into the big leagues on 200 Motels, he needed — as required by distributor United Artists — a sturdy presence behind the camera as his co-director.
Enter Tony Palmer, who in had 1968 had helmed All My Loving, a BBC music documentary series spotlighting Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Zappa himself, among others. Meeting to workshop what became 200 Motels, Zappa handed over a "script" of 300 pages described by Palmer as follows: “some handwritten, some paste-ups, some incomprehensible, a few lyrics, and a frequent use of the word ‘penis.’”
It wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven, but Palmer rose to every practical challenge: The Royal Philharmonic, Starr and Moon, classical guitar legend John Williams and the Monteverdi Choir were all assembled at London’s Pinewood Studios, preparing on embark on a rather ridiculous journey.
Zappa diehards already enjoyed a taste of 200 Motels, at least thematically, on the guitarist’s two most recent albums, 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge and the live recording Fillmore East — June 1971, both of which reveled in juvenile “tales from the road”-type sex humor. (Zappa even wrote in the Chunga liner notes that the vocal songs — featuring former Turtles singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, credited here as “Flo & Eddie” — were “a preview of the story from 200 Motels. Coming soon.”)
Fans were almost uniformly split about this era, which arrived between the acclaimed early Mothers period and the bandleader’s deeper explorations of jazz-fusion and prog-tinted rock. 200 Motels could be the peak of this love-it-or-hate-it Zappa: crudely comedic, emphasizing the outrageous over the virtuosic.
Watch the 'Lonesome Cowboy Burt' Scene From Frank Zappa's '200 Motels'
It’s difficult to churn up a synopsis. But in Zappa’s quest to document the craziness of touring life, he skips around vignettes involving groupies, a rowdy small-town cowboy bar, motel room service, and band member delusions and drama. None of it is particular memorable, plot-wise, and little of the music — including the bluesy “Magic Fingers” or the orchestra-backed “Penis Dimension” — rises above "solid Zappa" quality.
Pretty much everything that does work is visual, not conceptual — relying on frenetic cuts, bursts of animation and kaleidoscopic colors. “We have been hearing for a long time that videotape is going to revolutionize filmmaking, and now here is the vanguard of the revolution,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1971 review. “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.”
Palmer, on the other hand, was less complementary, later calling it “the worst film I’ve done.”
No matter who you agree with, one thing’s for sure: Just like with Frank Zappa’s albums, there isn’t another film like it.