Rock Docs book

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

“Rock Docs” Sampler #1: The Early Days

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey traces rock history through its depiction in documentary film. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a strong visual medium and movies based around it, like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Rock Around the Clock” and others with the “R” word in its title, were all the rage by as early as 1956. But it wasn’t really until 1964, with the Beatles’ seismic impact on the entertainment world, that this music started being committed to film by documentary producers. In the first of five themed samplers from the book, I look at those early days, accompanied by related video clips.

If you are interested in purchasing Rock Docs, please click on the image of the book cover in the right-hand column,it links to my BookLocker author page which contains a longer excerpt. Also, feel free to join my “Rock Docs” Facebook page. Thanks, Rick

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It was only ten weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. With the pall of national tragedy still in the air that winter, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles got a call from Granada Television in England saying a musical group named the Beatles were arriving in New York in a couple of hours and asking if they would mind heading down and maybe getting some footage? They arrived just in time to record that famous moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hesitated a moment at the top of the steps while leaving their plane, realizing that the hordes of people lining the balcony of the terminal were there for them and not some head of state as they first thought. And just like that, the Maysles brothers found themselves in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural moments.

From The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1964/1991)

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Produced by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham reportedly to get his rising stars used to the idea of film, Charlie is My Darling was the first documentary about the Rolling Stones. Back in the screaming-teenager epoch of the mid-1960s, the boys are whisked off to Ireland for a quickie tour hastily arranged to capitalize on the recent smash hit “Satisfaction.” It’s a bit of a revelation here to see the Stones in the first flush of their youthful success. They were already well known for the riotous audiences they attracted and by the end of the third number in Dublin the stage invasion is in full stride, memorably captured by Peter Whitehead’s in-the-wings camera.

From The Rolling Stones: Charlie is My Darling (1965)

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It’s been described as the ultimate Battle of the Bands—James Brown and the Famous Flames vs. the Rolling Stones. It definitely helped that both still had a lot to gain at this point in their careers. Brown coveted the crossover audience that so far eluded him and the Stones were fighting to crack into the American pop marketplace. Though Brown wanted to close the show the producers opted for a British Invasion finale. It hardly mattered: The Flames’ eighteen-minute set is justly hailed as one of the more thrilling concert sequences of the rock era. This in turn made the Stones step up their game and during all this the audience makes the final transformation from excitable to certifiable.

From The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

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Although blues great Son House has been seen doing an electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and going over well with it) it’s another story when Bob Dylan plugs in with the same guys and launches into “Maggie’s Farm,” complete with a searing guitar solo by Mike Bloomfield. The reception is actually mixed, in contrast to the legend of him being booed off the stage. He is coaxed into coming back with his acoustic guitar, but the die has been cast. The authenticity claimed by folk fans earlier mentioned has shaded into defensive orthodoxy and Dylan, seeing the similarly gifted Beatles already becoming worldwide icons, was off to chart a new course.

From Festival! (Murray Lerner’s compilation film of the Newport Folk festival 1963-66)

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Cream was one of the first media-ordained supergroups and their final show, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November ’68, was one of rock’s first self-consciously grand events. There was an imperative to capture the talented but fractious band on film before the split. The non-concert segments have an oddly defensive tone, with the power trio’s music having to be compared to the “traditional arts” by the BBC narrator. Back then, the thought of a longhair band and their scruffy fans taking over the august Albert Hall was probably still a bit controversial. Even if they had “almost single-handedly given rock an authority which only the deaf cannot acknowledge”!!

From: Cream: Farewell Concert (1968)