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Frank Zappa's 200 Motels: A Surreal Rock N Roll Film (movie review)

Updated on March 5, 2016

Music critics alike could easily agree that Frank Zappa was one of the most talented musicians from the 20th century. From his zainy sense of humor to his electrifying guitar playing, Zappa was truly a unique character. When it came to Zappa and movies, this is usually overlooked. While a couple of archival concerts have been released on home video by Zappa (and later, Zappa's estate), some tend to forget the man released two theatrical movies. The first of those two, 200 Motels, is one the strangest and most surreal rock n roll movies anyone will ever see. Released in 1971, 200 Motels was a movie that had a chaotic history being made and in being released on home video.

While Zappa has a fairly loyal fan base, some fans don't think highly of 200 Motels. Some think it's just too weird while others find it boring. Still, the movie has been able to gain a cult following and there are some Zappa fans who do enjoy the movie. Personally, I like 200 Motels. While I don't think it's necessarily a great movie, there's something unique about it.

"What Kind of Girl"- Live 1971

A Little History

Writing for 200 Motels began sometime around the late 1960's while Zappa was with the original era Mothers of Invention. Prior to 200 Motels, Zappa was no to a stranger to film. He had composed the music for the films The World's Greatest Sinner and Run Home Slow in the early 1960's. However in terms of actually releasing a movie himself, Zappa was not so lucky. Sometime in the mid-1960s, Zappa had written a script for a movie called Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People, which would star his high school friend Don Van Vliet in the title role. The movie was never finished, but Vliet would later take the Captain Beefheart name and use it as his stage name- becoming a musician in his own right with his group the Magic Band. Zappa's second attempt at making a movie was sometime during the late 1960's- this time a movie entitled Uncle Meat. The Mothers would release a double album of the same name in 1969 but the movie was not completed. Later on in 1987, a documentary featuring the footage filmed was released on home video.

For 200 Motels, Zappa came up with the concept for for it on tour. The album and movie earned its title, based on the fact that it was written in 200 different motels. The concept for 200 Motels was fairly simple: it was about what happened to a rock n roll band while they were on the road. Most of the incidents in the movie were based upon real life events that had happened to his band. Themes in the movie would include drug taking, scoring with groupies and deciding whether or not to leave the band. By the time Zappa had 200 Motel written, he had reformed the Mothers with a new line-up- fronted by Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo and Eddie) from the Turtles. When looking back at this time in Zappa's career, some Zappa fans don't care for this version of the Mothers and for valid reasons: while the original Mothers were a comedic band that cleverly satirized the counter-culture of the 1960s, this version stuck with being a comedy group- with the comedy leaning more towards the juvenile and dirty side.

Zappa presented the project to United Artists with a ten-page script treatment and some audio recordings. UA agreed to fund the movie with a budget of $650,000. With director Tony Palmer helping, 200 Motels was filmed within only a couple of days in one studio- Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England. Zappa also had the London Philharmonic Orchestra backing him up, providing some orchestral segments in the movie and soundtrack.

"Lonesome Cowboy Burt"

The Review

In a way, it's hard to review a movie like 200 Motels. The movie lacks something that almost every movie out there has: a coherent story line. Again, the idea of 200 Motels is stated in the beginning of the movie by Zappa: "Touring can make you crazy, ladies and gentlemen, and that is precisely what 200 Motels is all about." If you can keep that in the back of your mind the entire time, it will make watching this movie a lot easier.

One of the most interesting things about the movie is the cast itself. Zappa was able to assemble a whole eclectic group of people. Aside from the then current line-up of the Mothers, the movie featured Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf, Keith Moon as a nun, theater actor Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammiz. Zappa even invited some of his former Mothers bandmates such as Jimmy Carl Black and Motorhead Sheerwood to be in the movie.

As Larry the Dwarf, Ringo serves as the narrator of the movie as he guides the viewers through each theme of what makes bands crazy while on the road: drugs, reporters, groupies and thoughts of leaving the band. For what he was given to work with, Ringo gives a solid performance. Theodore Bikel is also quite good as Rance. Throughout the movie, Bikel's character breaks the fourth wall, letting everyone know that they are appearing in this movie and that they will get paid at some point. Jimmy Carl Black also shines in this movie, playing himself and the role of Lonesome Cowboy Burt.

"Magic Fingers"

The dialogue scenes in 200 Motels are quite interesting. Some of them are funny while others are plain weird. For funny, the scenes between Bikel and Black are quite funny and the scene where the Mothers get ready to go to the fake night club is also good fun. In terms of weird scenes, there are a bunch. Throughout the movie, Sherwood is in love with a vacuum cleaner. Moon's nun character overdoses in another, but not until he makes up a story with one of the groupies. While it has impressive animation, the Dental Hygiene Dilemma segment is sometimes hard to watch as the character of Jeff (played by Martin Lickert, Ringo's chauffeur, in the live action parts) decides that he will destroy his hotel room and quit the band.

If the dialogue scenes are too weird for audiences, the movie does have the music of Frank Zappa to fall back on and personally, I think the music from 200 Motels is quite underrated. The Mothers crank out some hard rockers with the wild "Mystery Roach," the delightfully sleazy "Magic Fingers" and the simply groovy "She Painted Up Her Face" suite. In playing the role of Lonesome Cowboy Burt, Jimmy Carl Black lends his vocals to the song of the same name. The lyrics are wonderfully dirty, as Black expresses his desire for fast women. "Come on in this place/And I'll buy you a taste" sings Black. "You can sit on my face/Where's my waitress?" Other musical numbers come out of the 1950's doo wop of "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy" and the freaky psychedelic sounds of Flo and Eddie's "Centerville."

"Penis Dimensions"

"Strictly Genteel"

The most outrageous of the musical numbers would have to be the juvenile goodness of "Penis Dimensions." The scene starts out with dialogue as a strange game show hosted by Flo and Eddie, asking the groupies if they want what's behind the curtain or what's in Eddie's pants. The musical sequence itself is as weird as the movie gets, with the band and cast all holding stick torches, with people dressed up in Ku Klux Klan costumes behind them.

However, it's the movie's finale "Strictly Genteel" that I have to pick as my favorite. Wonderfully composed by Zappa, he really got to show that he was capable of making music that an orchestra could play. The music in "Strictly Genteel" is, in my opinion, some of the best music he ever wrote. The lyrics are sung by Bikel and others, before going into the hard rocking finale led by Flo and Eddie.

Aftermath, response and home video

200 Motels was a hard movie to edit. Wanting to try the latest things in technology, Zappa decided the movie would be shot on VHS. With this, Zappa could see the scenes playback and decide if the take was good. This ended up back firing as VHS in the UK was not the same as VHS in the US. Some scenes were cut while others were not filmed at all. Some of the music had to be overdubbed, considering Zappa and the Mothers performed the music right there on the set. In the end, 200 Motels did not end up the way Zappa had envisioned it but the soundtrack was released on October 4, 1971 while the movie was released on November 10, 1971. The movie received mixed reviews from critics. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars out of four, calling it a "magical mystery trip." Although a fairly positive review, Ebert did criticize Zappa's choice on shooting the movie on videotape saying "If there is more that can be done with videotape, I do not want to be there to see it."

After its release, 200 Motels did receive some midnight releases before being released onto VHS in the 1980s and 1990s. The movie also received a laserdisc release in 1997, which was also the same year the soundtrack was issued onto CD for the first time via Rykodisc's Zappa remaster/reissue campaign. However for some reason, the Zappa Family Trust doesn't own the rights to the movie or soundtrack of 200 Motels. As a result, the soundtrack was not part of the 2012 Zappa reissues on Universal. The 1997 CD is now out of print and sells for big bucks on eBay.


DVD release

Attempts at getting 200 Motels released on DVD weren't as easy. Rumors spread of the tapes for the movie being burned or erased. Fans began to bootleg the movie on DVD, using either the VHS or the laserdisc as the source. In 2009, a new 35 mm print of the movie was shown in a double feature with Baby Snakes. Not too long after, director Tony Palmer released his new remastered version of 200 Motels on DVD in 2010 through VoicePrint. This version of the movie received negative reviews from Zappa fans. With the movie being shot on videotape, the movie's aspect ratio is 4:3. Palmer's version converted it to widescreen (16:9) by cutting the 4:3 picture. The movie itself didn't look remastered or cleaned up at all while the audio was muffled (for a more in-depth look at this release, click here to visit the site SOTCAA's review). Despite Palmer's attempts, this wasn't a good release of the movie. It turned out that Palmer didn't have the right to release the movie and as a result, the DVD was recalled.

In December 2010 in her "Ask GZ" column on Zappa's official site, Gail Zappa (Frank's now late widow) was asked about 200 Motels getting a DVD release. She responded by saying:

"We do not own 200 MOTELS but then again, neither does Tony Palmer and that fact does not seem to have deterred from his self-appointed rounds. Ah well. We can only hope! We do have a deal in place that should MGM decide that they want the deluxe version with all the bells and whistles they can ask us to help them out. But again, they do not have to do that."

Sometime in 2011, 200 Motels started popping up on video on-demand services such as Netflix Instant and Xfinity. This version of the movie used the artwork for Palmer's DVD but was an improvement over Palmer's actual DVD: the movie looked much better with good visuals and good audio. However, the movie was still cropped in 16:9 widescreen and not in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. Finally in June 2015, 200 Motels was finally given the closest thing to a proper DVD release- through Amazon and MGM's manufactured on demand services. While there are no special features such as the 1989 home video documentary The True Story of '200 Motels', this is the best version of the movie on DVD as it has good video and audio and is finally back in its proper 4:3 aspect ratio.

You can purchase 200 Motels on DVD for $19.49 on Amazon. You can also rent it digitally for $2.99 and/or own it digitally for $9.99.

If you have the time, check out this movie. While it isn't the greatest movie ever, it is an important part in Zappa's career.


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