Frank Zappa. Absurd, entertaining, and totally off the wall, the film attempts to capture the reality of life on the road for a touring rock ‘n’ roll musician…in a manner. Comprised of a number of individual nonsensical vignettes threaded together into a loose story and intercut with concert footage of the Mothers, the film is punctuated with the innovative use of special effects like double-exposures, solarisation, speed changes and such in an attempt to create a surreal rock ‘n’ roll documentary. It made history as the first feature film shot on videotape and transferred to 35mm film stock using a Technicolor film printer used by the BBC.
200 Motels was co-written and directed by Zappa and Tony Palmer, a British music critic and filmmaker who had previously produced documentary films on Cream, Peter Sellers, Jack Bruce, and Fairport Convention. The movie starred Academy Award nominee Theodore Bikel as the “Master of Ceremonies” and also included Zappa friends like Ringo Starr, Keith Moon of the Who, and infamous L.A. groupie Pamela Des Barres. Zappa had put together a new version of the Mothers prior to working on the film that included guitarist Jeff Simmons, keyboardist George Duke, journeyman British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Jim Pons and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (i.e. “The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie”), all three from the Turtles.
This new version of the Mothers debuted on Zappa’s 1970 solo album Chunga’s Revenge, which was produced as a sort of precursor to the film. Scoring for 200 Motels was provided by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and all the then-current members of the Mothers as well as former members like Don Preston, Ian Underwood, “Motorhead” Sherwood, and Jimmy Carl Black (as “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”) appeared in the movie, which was underwritten by United Artists with a $650,000 budget. The movie was released to mixed reviews as many middle-aged film critics just didn’t ‘get’ the surreal nature of the story, and it was accompanied by a double-LP soundtrack that included music from the film, new music not in the film, and spoken word pieces. Grabbed up by Zappa fanatics, the 200 Motels soundtrack peaked at a respectable #59 on the U.S. charts.
For Zappa fans that have never had the pleasure of watching this notorious cult film, MVD Entertainment is reissuing 200 Motels on DVD on August 14th, 2018 for the realistic price of $19.95 retail (but you can probably find it cheaper online). Check out the film that legendary movie critic Roger Ebert said “assaults the mind with everything on hand” and which Daily Variety called the “zaniest piece of filmusical fantasy-comedy since the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.” It would be grand if the Zappa Family Trust could manage to reissue the soundtrack album on vinyl, like they are with the upcoming release of Chunga’s Revenge.
Buy the DVD on Amazon.com: Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels
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Mothers of Invention - Burnt Weeny Sandwich LP review