200 Motels, titled onscreen as Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, is a 1971 American-British musical surrealist film cowritten by Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer and starring The Mothers of Invention, Theodore Bikel and Ringo Starr. The film depicts what is described as "life on the road", a scenario in which Zappa's band has been driven crazy by touring, and includes individual segments in which members of the band conspire to quit and form their own groups, a dwarf named Larry (Starr) dresses like Zappa and steals ideas from the band to compose symphonies, a Satan-like figure named Rance Mohammed (Bikel) conspires to steal the musicians' souls, and the suicide of a groupie (Keith Moon), who dresses as a nun.
|Directed by||Frank Zappa|
|Produced by||Herb Cohen|
Jerry D. Good
|Written by||Frank Zappa|
|Starring||The Mothers of Invention|
|Music by||Frank Zappa|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Box office||Under $1 million|
Dialogue was directed by Zappa, while Palmer directed visual effects, and an animated cartoon sequence was directed by Charles Swenson, marking three directors that worked on the film. The production was plagued with difficulties, prior to and during filming. Band member Jeff Simmons, originally set to play himself, quit the group, and was replaced by Martin Lickert. A soundtrack album was released in the same year, with a slightly different selection of music.
In 200 Motels, the film attempts to portray the craziness of life on the road as a rock musician, and as such consists of a series of unconnected nonsense vignettes interspersed with concert footage of the Mothers of Invention. Ostensibly, while on tour The Mothers of Invention go crazy in the small fictional town of Centerville ("a real nice place to raise your kids up"), wander around, and get beaten up in "Redneck Eats", a cowboy bar. In an animated interlude passed off as a "dental hygiene movie," bassist "Jeff", tired of playing what he refers to as "Zappa's comedy music", is persuaded by his bad conscience to quit the group, as did his real-life counterpart Jeff Simmons. Simmons was replaced by Martin Lickert (who was Ringo's chauffeur) for the film. Almost every scene is drenched with video special effects (double and triple exposures, solarisation, false color, speed changes, etc.) which were innovative in 1971. The film has been dubbed a "surrealistic documentary".
- Frank Zappa as himself
- The Mothers of Invention as themselves
- Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, the narrator/Master of Ceremonies
- Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf, dressed as Frank Zappa
- Keith Moon as the hot nun
- Howard Kaylan as himself
- Mark Volman as himself
- Ian Underwood as himself
- Ruth Underwood as herself
- Don Preston as himself
- Jimmy Carl Black as Lonesome Cowboy Burt
- Euclid James 'Motorhead' Sherwood as himself (uncredited)
- Aynsley Dunbar as himself
- George Duke as himself
- Jim Pons as himself (uncredited)
- Pamela Des Barres as the interviewer
- Martin Lickert as Jeff Simmons
- Janet Neville-Ferguson as Groupie #1
- Lucy Offerall as Groupie #2
- Dick Barber as Chunga - The Vacuum Cleaner
- Judy Gridley as the chorus leader
- London Philharmonic Orchestra as the bewildered orchestra
In 1970, Frank Zappa formed a new version of The Mothers of Invention which included British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons (bass, rhythm guitar), and three members of The Turtles—bass player Jim Pons, and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan—who, due to persistent legal and contractual problems, adopted the stage name "The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie", or "Flo & Eddie."
Zappa began writing a film for his new lineup called 200 Motels, and the band debuted on Zappa's next solo album Chunga's Revenge (1970), which was produced as a preview of the film. Zappa also met conductor Zubin Mehta. They arranged a May 1970 concert where Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic augmented by a rock band. This material served as a second preview of the film. According to Zappa, the music was mostly written in motel rooms while on tour with The Mothers of Invention. Some of it was later featured in 200 Motels. Although the concert was a success, Zappa's experience working with a symphony orchestra was not a happy one. His dissatisfaction became a recurring theme throughout his career; he often felt that the quality of performance of his material delivered by orchestras was not commensurate with the money he spent on orchestral concerts and recordings.
Zappa pitched the film to United Artists, using a portfolio including a ten-page treatment, two boxes of audio tape, and newspaper clippings. The film studio gave Zappa US$650,000 to finish the project, which Zappa initially intended to premiere on Dutch television before his next tour.
During rehearsals, the real Jeff Simmons quit both the band and the film, echoing a line of dialogue in the screenplay, in which his character, Jeff, quits the band to form a heavier, more serious hard rock/blues rock band. Auditions were held to recast the part of Jeff, and Wilfrid Brambell was cast in the role of Jeff, despite being 30 years older than the real Jeff Simmons and not being a musician, for his experience as an actor, being best known for playing Steptoe on Steptoe and Son, and Paul McCartney's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night. Brambell quit out of disliking the screenplay. Codirector Frank Zappa subsequently stated that "the next person who walks in that door gets the part", before Martin Lickert, Ringo Starr's chauffuer, entered the room with a pack of cigarettes for Starr. It turned out Lickert could not only act, but could also play the bass guitar, the real Jeff Simmons' instrument, thus fulfilling both aspects of his role in the film.
Filming commenced with Frank Zappa directing dialogue and Tony Palmer directing visuals. The animated cartoon Dental Hygiene Dilemma was directed by Charles Swenson, who subsequently directed actors and band members Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman in Down and Dirty Duck. This made a total of three directors who worked on the film.
Principal scenes of 200 Motels, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, were filmed in a week at Pinewood Studios outside London, and featured The Mothers of Invention, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and Keith Moon. Tensions between Zappa and several cast and crew members arose before and during shooting.
200 Motels was the first feature film photographed on videotape and transferred to 35 mm film utilizing a Technicolor film printer utilized by the BBC, a process which allowed for novel visual effects. The production was edited on video while filming, similar to a live television production, to speed up production time. The use of video while filming led to a popular misconception about the film that it was intended to be screened in 1.33:1, the aspect ratio it was shot in, but behind the scenes footage, visible during the documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, shows the video playback monitor covered with masking tape on the top and bottom of the screen so the film's directors could properly frame for 1.66:1 screening. Furthermore, scenes within the Mothers' hotel room show, in the 1.33:1 VHS and laserdisc releases, that the set has no ceiling, and a boom mic is visible in at least one shot, details which are not visible in the intended theatrical screening format of 1.66:1.
According to Frank Zappa, the producers decided, once filming had completed, to erase all the master tapes, including deleted scenes, and sell off the tapes as blank stock, to recoup the financial costs of the film. His widow, Gail Zappa, repeated this claim in 2004. In 2009, Tony Palmer made a contradictory claim in the liner notes of his unauthorized DVD release, that all elements of the script derived from Zappa's trunk's worth of material were completed during production, and that the film's original video tapes still exist.
Release and receptionEdit
United Artists' press kit for the film stated "For the audience that already knows and appreciates THE MOTHERS, [it] will provide a logical extension of our concerts and recordings." The film premiere was shown at Doheny Plaza Theater in Hollywood, California to mixed reviews. 200 Motels currently holds a 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on seven reviews.
Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, calling it "a joyous, fanatic, slightly weird experiment in the uses of the color videotape process", and also stating, "It assaults the mind with everything on hand". Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "'200 Motels' is not all bad, but because it's a movie with so many things going on simultaneously, it becomes too quickly exhausting—in actual effect, soporific." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety noted, "The comedy is fast and furious, both sophisticated and sophomoric. Entire experience is good fun." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars out of four and said it was "impressive" how professional the film looked on such a low budget and "quick production time," but that it was "more important as a technical achievement than as entertainment. The only sustained bit of wit and fun in '200 Motels' is a five-minute animated sequence directed not by Zappa, but by Chuck Swenson of Los Angeles-based Murakami Wolf Films ... The rest of the film is visual onanism mixed with good music." Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times wrote of the film that "in typical Zappa fashion it overturns most of the previous conventions about rock 'n' roll cinema. It is both a rock 'n' roll film and a film about rock 'n' roll. It straddles a line that perhaps only Richard Lester's Hard Day's Night — a funny, but far more conventional and less serious film — approached previously. It is a stunning achievement." Tom Zito of The Washington Post wrote that "'200 Motels' is in many ways a fantasy vision of how Zappa would like his group to appear on stage. In that sense it's a striding success. But whether the film will appeal to someone who wouldn't ordinarily be inclined to attend a concert by the Mothers is difficult to say." Tony Rayns of The Monthly Film Bulletin called it "a confused and, in both senses, directionless film, compounded about equally of disastrously fragmented musical sequences and the feeblest of verbal and physical horseplay."
The soundtrack to 200 Motels was released by United Artists Records on October 4, 1971, and features a combination of rock and jazz songs, orchestral music and comedic spoken dialogue. The rock and comedy songs "Mystery Roach", "Lonesome Cowboy Burt", "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy", "What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning" and "Magic Fingers", and the finale "Strictly Genteel", which mixes orchestral and rock elements, were noted as highlights of the album by reviewer Richie Unterberger.
The score relied extensively on orchestral music, and Zappa's dissatisfaction with the classical music world intensified when a concert, scheduled at the Royal Albert Hall after filming, was canceled because a representative of the venue found some of the lyrics obscene. In 1975, he lost a lawsuit against the Royal Albert Hall for breach of contract. When Penis Dimension was played to the judge, Mr Justice Mocatta, he responded "Have I got to listen to this?". The UK première was not until 29 October 2013, almost 20 years after Zappa's death.
200 Motels charted at #59 on the Billboard 200. The album was not released on compact disc until 1997, as a result of a licensing deal between Rykodisc (at the time the licensee for all of Zappa's other albums from the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT), numbering over 60 titles) and MGM allowing them to re-release numerous rare movie-musical soundtracks on CD. With the addition of this title, Ryko was finally able to offer the complete catalog of official Zappa recordings, as numerous legal proceedings both during Zappa's lifetime and afterwards failed to cede ownership of the rights and tapes to ZFT. That 2-CD edition, now out of print, contained extensive liner notes and artwork as well as a small poster for the film, in addition to bonus tracks consisting of radio promos for the film and the single edit of the song "Magic Fingers".
Though many Zappa fans consider this album a key recording of the period, it was deemed by some music critics to be a peripheral album. Allmusic's Richie Unterberger critiqued what he referred to as the "growing tendency to deploy the smutty, cheap humor that would soon dominate much of Zappa's work", but said that "Those who like his late-'60s/early-'70s work [...] will probably like this fine".
After 200 Motels, the band went on tour; the live album Just Another Band From L.A. included the 20-minute track "Billy the Mountain", Zappa's satire on rock opera set in Southern California. This track was representative of the band's theatrical performances in which songs were used to build up sketches based on 200 Motels scenes as well as new situations often portraying the band members' sexual encounters on the road.
In 2009, Tony Palmer released the film, retitled Tony Palmer's Film of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, on region-free NTSC DVD without any authorization from MGM and its current distributor, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, as well as disapproval from Gail Zappa and the Zappa Family Trust, who stated that while the Trust does not own the rights to the film, neither does Palmer, as the copyright is still held by MGM. This edition contained an audio commentary by Palmer, but was criticized by fans for missing footage from some scenes, as well as being incorrectly framed in the process of matting the film to 1.66:1. In 2019, Palmer launched a PledgeMusic campaign for a special edition DVD box set of 200 Motels, but the release was canceled after legal threat from MGM.
MGM upscaled the film to 1080p, transferred to its theatrical screening ratio of 1.66:1 with the correct matting. In 2015, a limited edition authorized DVD was released by MGM, manufactured on demand. In 2018, MVD Visual produced a DVD of the film for general release. While the HD version has aired on television and streaming services, it has never been released to Blu-ray.
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Zappa examined the relationship between rock and classical music in the "surrealist documentary" 200 Motels
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