The Wild Experiment of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

The new documentary Zappa could spark renewed interest in the iconoclastic American composer Frank Zappa. With unprecedented access to the Barking Pumpkin archives, director Alex Winter depicts his subject as a visionary with a distinctive aesthetic, a punishing work ethic, a strong belief in freedom of expression, and a risqué sense of humor. The live performances and rehearsal footage may inspire adventurous viewers to seek out more of Zappa’s music or writing, and with a discography that spans over a hundred records—as well as creative output in movies, books, and greeting cards—potential fans might not know where to start. Midnight movie mavens might look to 200 Motels, a feature film Zappa wrote and co-directed with TV director Tony Palmer in 1971, as a possible point of entry. 

In a 1976 review of 200 Motels, Matt Groening observed that “the essence of 200 Motels is very difficult to capture.” The film was based on a suite Zappa had written over a four-year period while he was touring with the original Mothers of Invention lineup. The Mothers’ televised concert for the Dutch TV station VPRO might have inspired Zappa to put a feature-length version of his suite before the cameras, an idea that solidified further when director Tony Palmer showed him a concert he’d shot where the cuts were expertly timed to the rhythm of the music—an unusual viewing experience in the years before MTV. After Palmer had agreed to co-direct the film (under the credit “Visual Director”), Zappa brought a proposal to United Artists. 

“Considering the ease with which the deal was made, it was unbelievable,” he would later tell Barry Miles of the International Times. “We sent them a tape and a 10-page treatment, and a few days later we had a meeting. We walked in and the guy says: ‘You’ve got a deal’, just like that.” Zappa acknowledged that the seven-day shooting schedule and budget were “tight,” and several scenes—including a “groupie opera” he’d performed on tour with the Mothers—were cut from the final shooting script. 

Zappa and Palmer spent almost two weeks working with a postproduction crew on a rough cut of the film. Because they were unable to shoot the full script, they edited many of the scenes into parts of the film where they weren’t intended to go, or were used to juxtapose different parts of the narrative. Palmer and his crew’s extensive knowledge of analog video postproduction allowed them to layer effects and use unusual techniques like solarization and multiple exposures to compensate for missing footage or to draw parallels between different narrative or character arcs. 

The title of one movement in the suites—“Touring Can Make You Crazy”—serves as the mission statement of the film. The narrative, such as it is, follows a moderately successful rock band on a cross-country tour, as the cities start to blend into one town with churches, liquor stores, and rancid boutiques. Though Zappa hated drugs and discouraged his bandmates and associates from getting high, the film’s episodic structure, fast editing, heavy rock music, dense shot composition, and use of video special effects has been described as psychedelic. The world of touring is so weird, Zappa might argue, that drugs won’t really have an effect. 

At times, 200 Motels plays like the missing link between the French New Wave and the transgressive comedians on live-action Adult Swim shows. A metanarrative about making a film called 200 Motels threads through the film, with narrator Rance Muhammitz (Theodore Bikel) and Zappa stand-in Larry the Dwarf (a confused Ringo Starr) addressing the audience and characters reviewing the scenes on camera and discussing among themselves what their character arcs will be. These scenes, as well as a throwaway shot of two groupies discussing “the rock stars from the film studio across the street,” seem like something out of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. You can see the DNA for Eric Andre’s surreal TV show in an early scene set on a confrontational game show, and in the seedy, dark sense of humor that permeates the film. 

In a contemporary interview included in Zappa, costar Howard Kaylan said that Zappa was expecting “the world’s worst reviews” for the film. 200 Motels would get mixed reviews on its release in 1971, including one pan from co-director Tony Palmer in which he described it as “one of the worst films in the entire history of the cinema,” adding that this is “ a criticism which I can confidently assert since I was responsible in part for its direction.” Though a ribald, technically innovative feature like 200 Motels seems like catnip to midnight movie audiences, the pitch dark humor contrasted with the more life-affirming messages of late-night fare like King of Hearts and Harold & Maude. Rights issues between United Artists and the Zappa estate are rumored to have kept the film out of distribution for long periods of time. 

How would 200 Motels fare in 2020, to an audience primed by Alex Winter’s documentary? The unchecked misogyny can be hard to take, and the film’s inconsistent pacing and lack of resolution might leave viewers unsatisfied. The footage of the Mothers in their prime is worth a viewing, however, and fans of surreal anti-comedy may appreciate it as well. Or, as Frank Zappa said on the film’s release: 

“For the audience that already knows and appreciates the Mothers, 200 Motels will provide a logical extension to our concerts and recordings. For the audience that doesn’t know, doesn’t care, but still takes a chance every once in a while on a new idea, 200 Motels will provide a surprising introduction to the group and its work.

“For those who can’t stand the Mothers and have always felt we were nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf perverts, 200 Motels will probably confirm their worst suspicions.” 

Chelsea Spear is returning to arts writing after spending a few years correcting other people’s grammar. Her byline has appeared at the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog and in the pages of The Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston.

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