200 MOTELS (1971)
‘Touring can make you crazy. That is precisely what 200 MOTELS is all about’.
Thus spake the narrator, actor Theodore Bikel, at the start of this madcap musical/live concert piece written, orchestrated and co-directed by Frank Zappa with Tony Palmer.
Zappa went to United Artists with a vague idea for a film. They green-lit it and almost $700,000 was spent by him on assembling a studio set, a cast of musicians alongside his band the Mothers Of Invention, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra for a concept piece loosely about the life of the rock musician. It was fast work, shot in only seven eight-hour working days and then edited in just eleven more. (Apparently the money ran out a third of the way through so they had to make do with the footage they had and edit it using very crude equipment).
200 MOTELS was the very first film shot on video-tape and then transferred to 35mm film. Its video effects such as freeze-frames, rewinds and frame repeats look basic today but back then became the basis for future rock video filming. It’s a loose and inventive film in format although bereft of any linear sense. Stylistically, the movie is akin to a cross between the studio-bound TV shows of THE BANANA SPLITS and ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, with its video look, cross-cutting and cartoon sound effects. The staging also feels like a live theatre broadcast of a musical, so it’s a curious mish-mash of approaches that has some validity for being an experimental use of the medium. The songs are reminiscent in eccentricity of Brian Wilson’s SMILE, but Wilson’s music is tuneful even when you’re not sure what he means. 200 MOTELS is harder to warm to.
Frank Zappa had the kind of personality that inspired people to trust him up to a point to voyage into the unknown in the type of project he’d had no experience of, which was movie-making. It has a cast almost entirely untutored as actors (and it shows) except Bikel who at least seems to have fun as the narrator/Rance Muhhamitz. Zappa cleverly stacked the deck with music showbiz glamour by adding Ringo Starr complete with Zappa-esque bushy long hair and beard and the manic Keith Moon as a suicidal nun that Starr chases through the orchestra pit at one point. Lord knows why but it livens things up. ‘Moon the Loon’ in a wimple somehow fits in this context, like an out-take from BEDAZZLED.
In the revealing ‘TRUE STORY OF 200 MOTELS’ documentary, Bikel was ‘intrigued by the idea’ presented to him by Zappa. He had little else to go on since the script was merely a fifteen-page outline then. Tony Palmer, whose background was in directing award-winning films about musicians, was so flummoxed by the impenetrability of the work that during the filming he wanted his name taken off it as director out of fear for his future career.
The band themselves could shed no more light on Zappa’s meaning or methods than anyone else. “Working with Frank, it’s all very temporary” offered band member Mark Volman. The shifting sands didn’t just apply to membership but also to the content of 200 MOTELS. It’s hard to lock onto a narrative thread in the film, or melody lines in the songs, which does make appreciation hard going at times.
Zappa realised there were mutinous elements afoot which to be fair he was largely to blame for. Aside from his film being inexplicable to his colleagues, he was hiring people unused to the discipline of filming, who hated the early wake-up calls and had little patience with the continual downtime needed by technical breaks. Those who did have experience didn’t like the conditions any more so, venting their frustrations by complaints or simply leaving. Band member Jeff Simmons quit early in production. There is a character reference dig in the film aimed at him as ‘Jeff’ tires of playing Zappa comedy music and wants to quit. He was replaced by actor Wilfred Brambell (TV’s old man Steptoe), who after a week of rehearsal freaked out at the environment on set and also left, to be replaced by Ringo Starr’s driver Martin Lickert. The London Philharmonic Orchestra endured the madness while filming needed them but as soon as they wrapped, ripped their rented tuxedos and stormed off. You can see it in the documentary and Zappa’s anger at what he saw as their lack of professionalism.
When asked what he thought audience’s reactions to 200 MOTELS would be, Mothers’ member (and ex-Turtles singer) Howard Kaylan imagined: “People are gonna be leaving saying ‘What’s he doing? What’s the message?’ That is the message. He’s not saying it”.
That’s about as much sense as the film makes. It’s an avant-garde curio for sure, but paved the way for pop video techniques so for that alone more than its wacky content it deserves a place in music film history.