Rockin’ in the Film World #17: Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS (United Artists 1971)

Frank Zappa is definitely an acquired taste, one I acquired as a young kid listening to albums like “Absolutely Free”, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”,  and “Apostrophe”, which goes a long way in helping to explain my warped world view. Zappa’s avant garde rock’n’roll, a mélange of jazz, classical, doo-wop, psychedelica, and anything else he could think of, combined with his nonsensical, sexual, and scatological lyrics, skewered convention, the plastic world of suburban America, and hippie culture as well (Zappa was an equal opportunity offender). 200 MOTELS was his first attempt at making a movie, co-directing and co-writing with British documentarian Tony Palmer, and to call it bizarre would be a gross understatement.

Visually, the film is as close to Zappa’s avant garde compositions as you can get. 200 MOTELS was shot on videotape and transferred to 35mm film, using techniques like double and triple exposure, color filters, flash-cut editing, and animation, and is more hallucinatory than Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (though Zappa himself was staunchly anti-drug use). It’s about life on the road, a common theme in rock films, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with random segments, skits, and performances by Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing FZ’s score live on film.

The Mothers play themselves: Anysley Dunbar, George Duke, Ian Underwood, and ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, collectively known as Flo & Eddie (My Brush With Greatness Story: I once partied backstage with Flo & Eddie at a nightclub in Boston after one of their performances – until one of my drunk, belligerent friends kept calling the overweight Volman a “fat fuck”, getting us thrown out of the room. Later, I encountered Kaylan wandering the streets with a pretty young groupie, who laughed and said, “It’s a jungle out there, man”). Ringo Starr is on hand as Larry the Dwarf, impersonating Zappa, and The Who’s Keith Moon is “The Hot Nun”. Folk singer/actor Theodore Bikel appears as a TV host and as Rance Muhammitz, who may or may not be The Devil. Real life groupies Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall play groupies, and former GTO and Supergroupie Pamela Des Barres is a rock writer. Original Mother Jimmy Carl Black sings “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”, one of the more traditional scenes in this anything but traditional film:

Cal Schenkel, the graphic artist who did many of Zappa’s album covers, is credited as production designer, giving the film it’s outlandish look. 200 MOTELS won’t be for everybody; if you like Zappa’s music, you’ll like this film. Those with a taste for surrealism will want to watch this experiment in abstract expression, others will find it tedious and self-indulgent. As for me, I love Frank Zappa’s out-there stylings, and I recommend it to all you similar mutants in the tribe of Zappa.

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”:

ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS BEACH PARTY WILD IN THE STREETS JAILHOUSE ROCK IT’S A BIKINI WORLD A HARD DAY’S NIGHT BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH  – THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT – HAVING A WILD WEEKEND – HEAD – KID GALAHAD – SKI PARTY – THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – HOLD ON!

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