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Revisiting the surreal madness of Frank Zappa's '200 Motels'

If you were to take Alejandro Jodorowsky, force-feed him Novacaine, and submit him to five solid days of formalised sleep deprivation, then you’d be getting close to the kind of madness contained within Frank Zappa’s surrealist masterpiece 200 Motels.

Released in 1971, 200 Motels attempts to portray the life of a touring rock band in all their fragmented, intoxicated glory. At its heart, the film is a series of increasingly surreal sketches and skits, strung together with concert footage from The Mothers Of Invention’s tours. Featuring an oddly mesmerising Ringo Starr as Zappa himself, Keith Moon as a sexually perverted nun, the broadway star Theodore Bikel, some particularly disgruntled violinists from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and countless other strange and uncanny characters, 200 Motels was shot in just ten days in Pinewood Studios, a remarkable feat considering just how much Zappa managed to cram into a mere 90 minutes.

Using a budget of around $650,000, Zappa and his crew set about exploring the possibilities of the videotape medium. Indeed, it was one of the first movies to be filmed entirely on videotape and Zappa exploited the increased malleability of the format, incorporating some eye-watering (by ’70s standards) visual effects.

The best way to approach 200 Motels is to think of it as a surrealist, hallucinogen-infused take on The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night, but without any of the charm of the early Beatles. Rather than endearing cheekiness, 200 Motels overflows with deadpan humour and wry cynicism, which occasionally makes the experience of watching it feel a little bit like being lectured by an embittered roadie on the cusp of a nervous breakdown.

The film itself moves at such speed that it’s practically impossible to keep up with. The moment you think you’ve found something to latch on to (the hilarious animation sequence, for example – in which a cartoon rock star attempts to smoke a towel) Zappa’s camera zips off in another direction, having lost all interest in the subject it was attempting to capture).

In this sense, 200 Motels evokes the crippled mental state of Zappa and all other rockstars who have spent a little too long on the road. Take the moment Zappa – speaking through Ringo Starr – breaks down the inner life of the performing musician: “A musician – if you consider the normal pattern of civilised life – is on the outside of it all. He doesn’t build things, he doesn’t work regular hours like a decent god-fearing citizen, and the life he leads, in many ways, feels useless and irrelevant.”

One of the highlights of 200 Motels for Zappa fans, is, of course, the soundtrack. Although even this doesn’t adhere to any code or logic. As Zappa explained in the liner notes to the soundtrack release: “This music is not in the same order as in the movie. Some of this music is in the movie. Some of this music is not in the movie. Some of the music that’s in the movie is not in the album. Some of the music that was written for the movie is not in the movie or the album. All of this music was written for the movie, over a period of 4 years. Most of it (60%) was written in motels while touring”.

Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels is like an erratic child, running around, knocking things over, with no real sense of purpose or focus. For many, this is half of the joy. It’s like opening up a battered leather trunk and finding a technicolour haul of intentionally terrible jokes, spectacular feats of ’70s SFX, and bewildering cameos by some of the era’s greatest cult heroes. My advice would be to delve into this one with a dose of something psychoactive close at hand.

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