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200 Motels (1971).

January 6, 2009

The Scoop:
Part rock opera, part tour exposé, part vanity project, part absurdist theater, part experimental music video — Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels” can be a tough nut to crack.

Zappa and the early-1970s version of his band, the Mothers of Invention, had an ongoing fascination with the life of a touring rock band. This fascination found its way into their music, and their shows became increasingly elaborate musical theater pieces full of songs, skits and jokes centered around sex, drugs and other outrageous behavior. It was all based on things they had done themselves, or on the stories that made the rounds among other groups. This exploration of the lifestyle finally culminated in “200 Motels.”

Beneath all the madness and surrealism of the film, there is a plot of sorts — Zappa (played by Ringo Starr) and the Mothers (who all play themselves) roll into the generic American town of Centerville looking for a good time. There, they cross paths with a pair of groupies (Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall), the devil (Theodore Bikel), a nun (Keith Moon) and a host of other strange characters.

Many of the situations come right from the Mothers’ tour experiences, and much of the dialogue is based on transcripts of conversations captured by Zappa and his cassette recorder during downtime on the road. The result is surprisingly genuine, despite the intentionally stilted delivery of the troupe of non-actors and Zappa’s notorious ironic detachment from his material.

Musically, the work here comes from one of Zappa’s most fertile periods, and it finds him following two different creative strands. With the Mothers, he creates some straight-ahead, powerful blues rock that would not sound out of place alongside the Allman Brothers, Zeppelin or even Sabbath. These songs are interspersed with FZ’s more experimental compositions, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. These pieces represent a turning point in his avant garde career, both looking back to the studio-bound “sound sculptures” of his early albums and also foreshadowing the orchestral work he would do in earnest a decade later.

For Zappa neophytes, “200 Motels” (both the film and the soundtrack album) is probably not the best introduction to the man’s work. But for fans it is essential and rewards close, repeated viewings.

Best Line:
“The fuckin’ devil’s got an English accent. I seen him three weeks ago on TV. So you know, you can just take this big needle here and hang it in your ass as far as I’m concerned!”

Side Note:
Offerall and Pamela Miller (who plays the Interviewer) were members of the GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously), a groupie collective/performance art troupe/singing group whose music was produced by Zappa. Miller would go on to become Pamela Des Barres, author of the infamous memoir “I’m With the Band.”

Companion Viewing:
“Head” (1968).

Understanding 200 Motels.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Welcome to Centerville (a real nice place to raise your kids up)!

Jimmy Carl Black (the Indian of the group) performs “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”:

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