Thursday, July 15, 2010

200 Motels

200 Motels is a 1971 British musical film featuring Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, produced at Pinewood Studios, England. Directed and written by Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer, with special material written by Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, and Jeff Simmons. Actors included Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel and Keith Moon. A double album of the soundtrack was released in the same year.


The US$600,000 film budget resulted in a seven-day shoot and eleven days of editing. Its low production values and frenetic schedule contributed to the insanity which the film attempted to evoke. Although the film's main theme is "life on the road" for a touring rock musician in the late twentieth century, it makes broader comments about the surreal state of the political and cultural life of America and the world during that time.

Its references include Mephisto, Kafka, Kubrick's 2001, work re-education/concentration camps and an animated sequence with a cameo of Donald Duck featured as part of a video/musical collage. These broader, symbolic culture references coexist with specific characters and places: i.e. "Lonesome Cowboy Burt", a non-union roofer who savagely beats up hippies and leftists, and two groupies, Lucy Offerall and Janet Neville.

The film's creative talents include the Mothers of Invention and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the actor Theodore Bikel, and rock-stars Ringo Starr (playing Larry the Dwarf and Frank Zappa) and The Who's drummer, Keith Moon (in drag, playing a nun).

The plot is both nebulous and nonexistent as a narrative or as a series of vignettes and production numbers. According to Zappa, only a third of his script was filmed. The director, several actors and a band member quit mid-production. These events accounted for several radical, last-minute changes.

To keep costs down, the film was shot and edited entirely on 2 inch Quadruplex videotape in the PAL format and only transferred to film after post-production was complete, a cinematographic first. PAL is the standard video and broadcast system used in over 120 countries and territories in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa, and has approximately 20% more lines of resolution than the U.S. NTSC video standard. The rushes and the unused scenes were later erased and sold as used bulk video tape.


The music on the soundtrack is in a different sequence than the film. In addition, Zappa explained in the soundtrack album notes that, not all the music in the film is on the album, and not all the music on the album is in the film. Some of the music written for the project is not in the movie or on the soundtrack album.

This was not the first time that Zappa combined orchestral and rock music on film. He did this in his very first film score The World's Greatest Sinner in 1962. The music in 200 Motels also has similarities to earlier Zappa works, such as the orchestral score to Run Home Slow (1965) as well as his first solo LP, Lumpy Gravy, from 1968.

The double album soundtrack, like the film, was completed in a week. The production took place at Pinewood studios in England and the recording of the band without the orchestra took place after the day's filming was complete. This was done with a rented remote recording studio/truck owned by the Rolling Stones which was driven into the movie studio and parked there for a week.

A large variety of musical styles and satirical parodies of musical styles on the album, including the faux country "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" with a vocal by Jimmy Carl Black. Rock band selections include "Do You Like My New Car", "Shove It Right In" and "Magic Fingers". Little space is given to guitar solos on the album and lyrics throughout the album are typically obsessed with sexual behaviour, critical of American society.

Zappa's orchestral compositions exhibit the influence of composers he admired such as Varèse, Stravinsky and Webern. The soundtrack also includes operatic vocals by a group of "serious" singers on some pieces and the entire panoply of modern chamber music, twentieth century orchestra, avante-garde and twelve-tone repertoire are also represented on the soundtrack.


* The film's closing credits are superimposed over its own expense reports.
* Frank Zappa appears in this film, but only as a musician. The role of "Frank Zappa" as a film character is played by Ringo Starr.
* The film influenced the title of the BBC TV series 500 Bus Stops starring comedian John Shuttleworth.
* The bulk of the musical soundtrack for this film was recorded live as the film was shot (with the exception of the torchlight procession scene during the song "Penis Dimension"); a sharp departure from the traditional method of recording the music beforehand and lip syncing during filming.
* The oft-repeated claim that the film was shot in the same studio as 2001: A Space Odyssey is incorrect. That film was shot at a different, MGM-owned studio on the outskirts of London. The iconic black monolith seen in the film is a visual reference and mock-up, not the actual prop. All the properties from 2001 were destroyed at Stanley Kubrick's request after the filming was completed.
* The film Dirty Duck (aka The Down and Dirty Duck), an X-rated animated film directed by Charles Swenson and starring Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan), was another Murakami-Wolf production. The film's characters evolved from the "Dental Hygiene Dilemma" animation sequence Swenson created for Frank Zappa's film 200 Motels. The plot concerned a straight-laced blue collar worker named Willard who meets a duck, who decides to take Willard on a raunchy adventure.


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