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200 Motels

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200 Motels
Promotional release poster
Directed byFrank Zappa
Tony Palmer
Written byFrank Zappa
Tony Palmer
Produced byHerb Cohen
Jerry D. Good
StarringThe Mothers of Invention
Theodore Bikel
Ringo Starr
Keith Moon
Music byFrank Zappa
Bizarre Productions[1]
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • October 29, 1971 (1971-10-29) (Beverly Hills)[2]
Running time
98 minutes
CountriesUnited States
United Kingdom
Box officeUnder $1 million[3]

200 Motels is a 1971 surrealist musical film written and directed by Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer, and featuring music by Zappa. An international co-production of United States and the United Kingdom, the film stars the Mothers of Invention, Theodore Bikel, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr.[4]

A soundtrack album was released in the same year, with a slightly different selection of music.


The film attempts to portray the craziness of life on the road as a rock musician, and as such consists of a series of unconnected nonsense vignettes interspersed with concert footage of the Mothers of Invention.[5] Ostensibly, while on tour The Mothers of Invention go crazy in the small fictional town of Centerville ("a real nice place to raise your kids up"), wander around, and get beaten up in "Redneck Eats", a cowboy bar. In an animated interlude passed off as a "dental hygiene movie", bassist "Jeff", tired of playing what he refers to as "Zappa's comedy music", is persuaded by his bad conscience to quit the group, as did his real-life counterpart Jeff Simmons. Simmons was replaced by Martin Lickert (who was Starr's chauffeur) for the film.[4] Almost every scene is drenched with video special effects (double and triple exposures, solarisation, false color, speed changes, etc.) which were innovative in 1971. The film has been dubbed a "surrealistic documentary".[6][7]



Principal scenes of 200 Motels, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, were filmed in a week at Pinewood Studios outside London, and featured The Mothers of Invention, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and Keith Moon.[8] Tensions between Zappa and several cast and crew members arose before and during shooting.[8] However, director Tony Palmer (on his 2009 reissue of 200 Motels) claims that all elements of the script derived from Zappa's trunk's worth of material were completed during production. It was the first feature film photographed on videotape[9] and transferred to 35 mm film, a process that allowed for novel visual effects.[10]

Release and reception[edit]

United Artists' press kit for the film stated "For the audience that already knows and appreciates THE MOTHERS, [it] will provide a logical extension of our concerts and recordings."[11] The film premiere was shown at Doheny Plaza Theater in Hollywood, California to mixed reviews.[12] 200 Motels currently holds a 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on seven reviews.[13] Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, saying that the film; "is a joyous, fanatic, slightly weird experiment in the uses of the color videotape process", and also stating; "It assaults the mind with everything on hand".[14]


The soundtrack to 200 Motels was released by United Artists Records on October 4, 1971, and features a combination of rock and jazz songs, orchestral music and comedic spoken dialogue.[4] The rock and comedy songs "Mystery Roach", "Lonesome Cowboy Burt", "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy", "What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning" and "Magic Fingers", and the finale "Strictly Genteel", which mixes orchestral and rock elements, were noted as highlights of the album by reviewer Richie Unterberger.[4]

The score relied extensively on orchestral music, and Zappa's dissatisfaction with the classical music world intensified when a concert, scheduled at the Royal Albert Hall after filming, was canceled because a representative of the venue found some of the lyrics obscene. In 1975, he lost a lawsuit against the Royal Albert Hall for breach of contract.[15] When "Penis Dimension" was played to the judge, Mr Justice Mocatta, he responded "Have I got to listen to this?". The UK première was not until 29 October 2013, almost 20 years after Zappa's death.[16][17]

The album was not released on compact disc until 1997, as a result of a licensing deal between Rykodisc (at the time the licensee for all of Zappa's other albums from the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT), numbering over 60 titles) and MGM allowing them to re-release numerous rare movie-musical soundtracks on CD. With the addition of this title, Ryko was finally able to offer the complete catalog of official Zappa recordings, as numerous legal proceedings both during Zappa's lifetime and afterwards failed to cede ownership of the rights and tapes to ZFT. That 2-CD edition, now out of print, contained extensive liner notes and artwork as well as a small poster for the film, as well as bonus tracks consisting of radio promos for the film and the single edit of the song "Magic Fingers".[4]

Though many Zappa fans consider this album a key recording of the period, it was deemed by some music critics to be a peripheral album.[4] AllMusic's Richie Unterberger critiqued what he referred to as the "growing tendency to deploy the smutty, cheap humor that would soon dominate much of Zappa's work", but said that "Those who like his late-'60s/early-'70s work [...] will probably like this fine".[4]


After 200 Motels, the band went on tour; the live album Just Another Band From L.A. included the 20-minute track "Billy the Mountain", Zappa's satire on rock opera set in Southern California. This track was representative of the band's theatrical performances in which songs were used to build up sketches based on 200 Motels scenes as well as new situations often portraying the band members' sexual encounters on the road.[18]

A show was produced in 2018 in France (Festival Musica Strasbourg and Philharmonie de Paris), staged by Antoine Gindt[19][circular reference] and conducted by Léo Warynski. This production is revivaled in Opéra de Nice in December 2023.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ FilmAffinity
  2. ^ "200 Motels – Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved May 31, 2019.
  3. ^ a b Levine, Paul G. (Jan 13, 1980). "Rock Stars Film it Their Way". Los Angeles Times. p. m6.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Richie Unterberger. "200 Motels – Frank Zappa". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 20 January 2011. Retrieved 21 August 2011.
  5. ^ Miles, 2004, Frank Zappa, p. 207.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent (November 11, 1971). "Film: Frank Zappa's Surrealist '200 Motels'". The New York Times. 60.
  7. ^ Norman, Katharine (1996). A Poetry of Reality: Composing with Recorded Sound, Volume 15, Parts 1-2. Psychology Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-3-7186-5932-6. Retrieved September 17, 2010. Zappa examined the relationship between rock and classical music in the "surrealist documentary" 200 Motels
  8. ^ a b Watson, 1996, Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, p. 183.
  9. ^ World Radio History - Studio Sound (page 23)
  10. ^ Starks, 1982, Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness, ISBN 1579511899, p. 153.
  11. ^ David Walley (22 August 1996). No commercial potential: the saga of Frank Zappa. Da Capo Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-306-80710-6.
  12. ^ Lowe, 2006, The Words and Music of Frank Zappa, p. 94.
  13. ^ "200 Motels". Rotten Tomatoes.
  14. ^ Roger Ebert (November 29, 1971). "200 Motels".
  15. ^ Zappa with Occhiogrosso, 1989, The Real Frank Zappa Book, pp. 119–137.
  16. ^ Manning, Sanchez (2013-08-11). "Frank Zappa settles an old score after 42 years: Banned in 1971, '200 Motels' will finally be played in the UK". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 2013-08-11. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  17. ^ Gittins, Ian (30 October 2013). "200 Motels – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  18. ^ Miles, 2004, Frank Zappa, pp. 203–204.
  19. ^ "Antoine Gindt".
  20. ^ "T&M - Théâtre & Musique".

External links[edit]