200 Motels

By Mike Gold

The Seed, December, 1971


Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, the movie as opposed to the record, is currently three-fourths through a four week run downtown.

If you are hung up by such trivial things as plot and cohesiveness, you probably won't like this movie. If you are expecting something like Yellow Submarine, Hard Day's Night or Woodstock, you might not like this movie.

If you don't like the music of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, you definitely won't like this movie. If you are a film buff, 200 Motels uses some important new techniques which should have as much impact on the industry as had Citizen Zane. I don't know whether the industry has enough guts to use them in the immediate future, but Zappa did bring the film in about $40,000 under the small ($600,000) budget, so the executives can't help but dig it.

If you are a Mothersmaniac and are familiar with the manner in which Zappa puts together different sounds and musical ideas into an album collage, this is your flick. If you dig ever changing colors, funny scenes, satires of rock n'roll business and mass confusion, you'll love 200 Motels.

The film is a bit confusing, I guess. The characterizations are somewhat illogical:

1. Ringo Starr (drummer from the Beatles) plays Larry the Dwarf who, in turn, plays Frank Zappa.

2. Keith Moon (drummer from the Who) plays an asexual nun who is trying to become a groupie.

3. Jimmy Carl Black (former Mother's drummer) plays a cowboy singer named Lonesome Cowboy Burt.

4. Ansley Dunbar (former Mayall drummer, currently playing drums with the Mothers of Invention) plays a rock sex symbol.

5. Actor/folk singer Theodore Bikel (who , to the best of my knowledge, never played drums) plays villian Rance Muhammitz. Rance, in turn, plays a television announcer who interviews Ringo as Larry as Zappa.

6. Martin Lickert plays the role of Jeff Simmons, the mother who quit the group after reading the script to 200 Motels. Originally, Jeff was supposed to play himself, Lthink.

7. & 8. Two other former Mothers, Motorhead Sherwood and Don Preston, play former Mothers. In addition, Preston plays a monster.

9. Dick Barber, the Mothers' road manager, plays the role of a vacuum cleaner.

10. The London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are mis-cast as themselves.

11. Frank Zappa plays nothing more than lead guitar. That's good enough.

If you've got all this straight, the flick is interrupted by a cartoon called "Dental Hygiene Dilemma" which lays down the only plot the film cares to offer-how a certain bass player named Jeff is really too good to play in a comedy rock'n'roll group. Later on in the flick, Martin Lickert drinks a potion concocted by Monster Don Preston and plays out the same role.

The real stars of the flick are Mothers' lead singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. They're lost in a town called Centerville, you see, where the band happens to be playing. Centerville is a superstraight place, "A real nice place to raise your kids up." Super surrealistic scenes.

There's a lot of other shit in the flick, but the one thing that bears note is the process which Zappa used in shooting 200 Motels. The flick was shot on color video tape in seven days and transferred to film in three months. Because of this technique, Zappa is able to use colors that fade from one to another in a manner which has never before been on film. In this respect, 200 Motels is a total mind-fuck.

Zappa wrote all the music, co-directed the film and generally bears sole credit or blame. As I've said, if you couldn't get into Zappa's head before this flick, you won't be able to now, particularly because you don't have the advantage of repeated exposure as you have with records.

If you're still hung up about understanding the movie about the only other flick I ever saw that was like 200 Motels was Head, starring the Monkees, Sonny Liston, Annette Funachello, Victor Mature and Frank Zappa. It, too, had a lot of pretty colors, funny scenes, weird shit going on and bad reviews from the straight press. Head also had a bit more plot.

I'm a Zappa fiend, and I loved this movie. I dug it even more as4 thought it over after seeing it. About the only complaint I can make is it's a little too long, although I can't see anything being cut from it.

200 Motels is an experience, be it good, bad or simply boring. It should be experienced, though. Particularly if you run out of mescaline and would like something to look at.