By Chris Charlesworth
KEITH MOON, dressed up as a nun with a painted white face, was chasing Ringo Starr through an orchestra pit set in a concentration camp. Ringo was carrying a harp and Keith’s wimple was poking out the eyes of the violinists. The whole scene was surrounded by barbed wire so there was no chance to escape. And machine guns from the timpani level were trained on the conductor.
Sounds rather bizarre, even in these days of Monty Python mania – but it’s all part of Frank Zappa’s "200 Motels" film which was being shot at Pinewood Studios last week.
The part of the nun was to have been played by Mick Jagger, but Moon took over principally to get some experience of appearing before film cameras before work started on the Who’s own film on Sunday.
It was fortunate that I met Keith at his Windsor hotel at the appointed time for his genial chauffeur Chalky, who had been wrongly informed that Keith had the day off, was nowhere to be seen – and Keith wanted to get to the studio. An emergency call had come through to say he was wanted on the set – and Keith was penniless and stranded at the hotel.
"We’ve been filming all week and last week and it’s just like being on the road again," he told me as I drove hastily towards Pinewood. "I was only supposed to be doing two days filming but it has turned out to be much longer because I keep cropping up in crowd scenes as well.
The whole movie is based on a group’s life on the road so those with experience of that are used to what is going on. We had Wilfred Bramble to take one part but he gave it up in despair because he didn’t know what was going on. Ringo’s chauffeur took the role instead."
Pinewood is situated in the green fields of Buckinghamshire near Iver Heath. Hidden from the road it encompasses acres of film sets, both inside and out, linked by corridors resembling tube stations. It is centered on what was once a rambling country home, which today houses the offices, dining rooms and bars.
The film set for 200 Motels was a street in "anytown" USA. Keith showed me round explaining who was what and apologising for his late appearance. Shooting starts very early in the morning – at an hour when most pop people are midway through the night’s sleep.
Someone suggests that Keith puts his nun’s costume on for a procession scene and I am left to watch the action. Ringo is eating a custard pie and leaning against a wooden hut. He’s made up to look like Frank Zappa with black hair everywhere, moustache and tiny beard below his bottom lip. Frank Zappa is rushing around with suggestions. Director Tony Palmer is not on the set. He’s in an office with monitor TV sets showing him what’s going on and speaking through a closed circuit radio to the stage director.
Various members of the Mothers are wandering around in bizarre costumes, in particular Mark Volman who is wearing a black bra, panties and girdle! Girls taking the parts of groupies are in abundance. Half an hour later Keith returns in the nun’s outfit with his painted white face. There’s a delay while a dance sequence is being shot and Keith shows me the orchestra set where his chase with Ringo was filmed.
"I was rushing around there and it was no joke with half a ton of denim around me," he says, indicating his nun’s habit. "I think I poked out the second violinist’s eye. They were all clutching their Stradivarius in horror in case Ringo’s harp smashed them."
I asked how this scene fitted into the plot but he didn’t seem to know. He did mention something about being raised from the ground on wires and flying into the sky.
"We had Tony Curtis down on our set yesterday and I was chatting with him. He does all his own stunt work and apparently he did a death defying act yesterday and they discovered the camera had not been working properly. He didn’t want to risk his luck by doing it again," said Keith.
At last the procession scene is underway. To a background of "Penis Dimensions," just about the entire cast walk down the street carrying lighted torches. There were about 20 guys dressed as Ku Klux Klan followers in the procession and the torches create enough smoke to reduce visibility down to a few yards. For effect Keith makes a big show of picking his nose during the scene. Nobody seems to mind.
At 5.20 exactly filming stops. Film technicians are strict union men and everything shuts down with remarkable speed. Keith changes and most of the cast make for the bar where talk centers on the organisation of the party on the Friday night – the last day’s filming.
Not surprisingly Keith figures pretty high in the organisation of the party, directing Chalky – who has since re-appeared – to purchase bottles by the dozen and arrange music for all.
Back at the hotel over dinner Keith talks about his role in the film and in the Who film. "I am really only doing this film to get the hang of working before cameras. I’ve never been on a film set before so the experience will come in useful for our own film. I’m not doing this for the money, and I suppose anyone could dress up like a nun and do what I do. But it’s great fun to do and nice to get out of London for a while. I am thinking of buying a house near Windsor too.
"With our own film each of us in the group is being given a section to write for themselves so I’m thinking of having my bit shot in Bermuda so we can all go over there. I don’t know what the film company will think about it though," he adds with some doubt.
A few drinks later and I’m in no mood for driving back to town. The spare bed in Chalky’s room looks inviting and the next thing I know it’s Friday morning. Keith is already down for breakfast – looking as if he’s never been to bed at all. Maybe he hasn’t, but he’s as much energy packed to his frame as three of me. It’s always been evident in his drumming and it looks now as though it will be evident on the movie screen too.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net