Revisiting Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like

200 Motels
Directed by Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer–1971–98 minutes

Rock star movies from the Sixties and early Seventies that used fictional frameworks have a bit of a checkered history you might say. This notion came back to me while I’ve been going thru sheets of handwritten reviews that I didn’t use in my new book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” because they didn’t exactly fit the documentary definition. The Beatles peaked out this sub-category way back in 1964 with the tack-sharp “Hard Day’s Night” and slid pleasantly downhill from there with “Help” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” Other famous pop groups of the era also had their “juke box movies” (of which HDN is famously the “Citizen Kane” of) but by the late 60s the heavy psychedelic age was upon us and self-conscious curiosities like “Head” and “Rainbow Bridge” were unleashed on the world. The farthest-out of these (not necessarily a compliment) may be 1971’s “200 Motels” co-directed and written by Frank Zappa with British documentarian Tony Palmer, who is also credited with the “shooting script” (a little more on that later). The zany cast include Zappa’s band the Mothers of Invention, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Theodore Bikel and various side characters.

By the time of his death in 1993, Frank Zappa had long solidified his status as an envelope-pushing rock music icon, but seldom has there been one with such wide-ranging sensibilities. He was one of the most accomplished guitarist-composers in the genre’s history and certainly one of it’s more iconoclastic: a man equally at home writing and arranging instrumentals inspired by the greats of 20th century serious music while also penning lyrics whose humor often veered off the road of social criticism into the ditch of childish bad taste.


The one and only… Fringo??

In “200 Motels,” shot on an extensive soundstage at Pinewood Studios in England, you get both of these Franks—but only sort of. That’s because he only appears in the performance sequences and in his stead has Ringo (made up to look like Zappa) wandering through the sets in the role of the story’s narrator. That story, such as it is, involves the trials and tribulations of a rock group that has been on the road too long (meh) and are being subtly manipulated by a tyrannical bandleader (guess who). This is the incarnation of the Mothers featuring wiseguy vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (AKA Flo & Eddie), late of the Turtles. The band also included Anysley Dunbar, Jimmy Carl Black, Ian Underwood and George Duke. With that kind of line-up, one can be forgiven for wanting more performance segments they we get here. Instead, the guys spend too much of the film’s running time holed up in a Middle American bad dream of a stage-set city called Centerville, filled with establishments like the Rancid Boutique, Fake Nightclub and Redneck Eats Café.


Spot the Moonie. I’d say “Spot the Loony” but that would be too easy.

Here, they caustically contend with the various absurdities of modern society and are confronted at regular intervals by a nutso government agent played by Bikel. It basically amounts to a feature-length series of naughty non-sequiturs, over-baked satire, distracting “special” effects and unpleasant sight gags, occasionally enlivened by a musical performance or a topless GTO girl. Oh yes, and some Stravinsky-influenced symphonic interludes by the in-studio orchestra conducted by Zappa (about the only time he’s on camera).

Frank was famous for the facetious attitudes he expressed towards not just straight society but also to the prevailing hippie ethos of his own general demographic. But “200 Motel’s” Dadaist indulgences are just as overripe as the flower-power excesses he chafed against. Kaylan and Volman, in the absence of Zappa himself, shoulder a lot of the blame here. Their raunchy lyrics and high-pitched vocal mannerisms do yield a few funny moments, but few save for the diehards would see any lasting value in such routines as “Penis Dimension,” “Half a Dozen Provocative Squats” and “Dental Hygiene Dilemma.” And those are more like routines. The real rock numbers are few and far between, the best being “Magic Fingers” with finally some lead guitar from Frank and a twisted monologue at the end by Kaylan that pointed to the material they would do on the “Just Another Band from LA” album, released the next year. So jump right in Zappa completists, or those interested in seeing Keith Moon dressed as a nun while being trained as a groupie or even those curious to see what came next in Ringo Starr’s filmography after “The Magic Christian.” All others are warned.


Founding member Jimmy Carl Black may not officially have been in the Mothers lineup by 1971, but he does appear in the film, performing “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” and calling bullshit with one of 200 Motels few straightforward lines: “Where’s the beer and when do we get paid?”

It is curious looking back why a band even as incorrigible as the Mothers of Invention, having secured funding for a motion picture of their very own, would squander it on something as utterly impersonal as “200 Motels.” There isn’t a single moment in its 98 long minutes that’s smacks of any real human connection. If that’s kinda the point then it’s not well taken. Even adventurous viewers will be exhausted by the finale, a decent take-off on the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” broadcast, if they get that far. In later years, Zappa seemed defensive and claimed that the film was carefully planned and also suggesting that Tony Palmer—who had made films of bands like Cream as well as of the modern composers that Frank loved—had to be let go towards the end of production. In the 2009 DVD edition, Palmer broke his silence and said that he saved Zappa from himself, making some sense of the loose sheets of production notes that he was given and also for securing the services of London’s Royal Philharmonic players on a few weeks’ notice. Whatever the truth, “200 Motels” is destined to remain an oddity and a good example that while the counterculture era was an adventurous time, the unchecked permissiveness that was its flipside was a slippery slope all too ready for sliding.

Further looks into Woodstock-era films that combine fictional storylines with rock performances (yes, “Rainbow Bridge” I’m looking at you!) coming soon. In the meantime if you would like to view a 30-page excerpt of my “Rock Docs” book click on the link here: http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

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