Singing Pictures: One of Frank Zappa’s biggest risks was his 1971 movie 200 Motels

Andrew Anderson re-watches the films made by bands so you don’t have to, this time big haired '60s provocateur Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa is a rather unusual artist. For a start, although his name is very well known – most people who have any interest in rock music from the ’60s and ’70s will recognise it – his music is less so; ask those same people to name a Zappa track, or even an album, and they might struggle. I’d even say his silhouette (big hair, thick goatee) is more famous than most of his songs. Why is this?

I’ll be blunt: I think the reason is that a lot of his music isn’t very good. Or rather, I should say it isn’t so much his music, which is almost always interesting, that isn’t very good, but rather his lyrics.

Zappa’s lyrics were for the most part satirical. He poked needles into a lot of overblown balloons: hippies, politicians, political systems, obscenity laws and the posturing of pop stars. This was a worthy thing to do, but like most satire it dated rather quickly. A lot of his mockery of hippiedom actually sounds more corny and clichéd than the flower power tracks he was originally mocking. Further, his lyrics about sex, which no doubt at the time were taboo-breaking, now sound like a seven year old sniggering about willies rather than someone making a serious social statement.

In short, today Frank Zappa’s lyrics are at best a bit irrelevant and at worst unnecessarily offensive.

I’m five paragraphs into this article and all I’ve really done so far is criticise Frank Zappa whereas, truthfully, I’m a big fan. Yes, his lyrics aren’t always top notch, but you know what – Zappa did what every good artist should do: he took risks. We need people like Zappa to try new things, to go where others couldn’t or wouldn’t and report back. That, to my mind, is one of the main purposes of art. And one of the big risks Zappa took, quite early on in his career, was to make a movie called 200 Motels.

The year was 1971, and at this point in his career Zappa had carved out a pretty comfy niche for himself. Since 1966 he’d released 12 albums, a body of work that showed his diverse musical talents; this is a guy who could write parodies of The Beatles (‘We’re Only In It For The Money’) just as easily and brilliantly as he could concoct experimental jazz (‘Hot Rats’). For some people that might mean doing more of the same, but not Zappa who decided to make a film that would be part documentary, part concert, part opera and part absurdist theatre.

As you may have gathered from that description, 200 Motels doesn’t really do plot. Instead, the film is made up of a series of scenes that are designed, as Zappa himself says during the opening, to give you an insight into the insanity experienced by bands on tour. To my mind that subject itself is a bit problematic – it’s not all that easy to relate to, and I’m not sure I really empathise with Zappa complaining that it makes him go crazy – but I guess today millions of people give a shit about what Katy Perry or Beyoncé get up to out on the road, so perhaps that’s just me.

In order to get his point across, Zappa places his band members in scenes where they talk to one another about their wants and needs such as ‘when are we gonna get paid?’ and, more commonly, ‘when are we gonna get laid?’. He also has them deconstruct the very fact that this is a film, with band members openly acknowledging and interrupting the filming process.

Now, when something is ‘deconstructed’ that’s a red flag that says to me ‘this is not going to be very fun’, and so it proves – these parts of the film really, really drag, and are not helped by the fact that Zappa can’t write dialogue and his band mates can’t act. Of course, at the time it was less than 10 years since The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and the whole idea of being a rock group was born, so this kind of self-examination of what it means to be in a band was maybe more relevant in 1971; in 2017 it’s not worth watching.

Here are two Frank Zappa tracks that you should listen to right now: ‘Mystery Roach’ and ‘Magic Fingers’. These tunes sound like Maggot Brain-era Funkadelic filtered through the cracked mind of a hippy who has been fed too much coffee; pummelling percussion, viscous licks from Zappa’s guitar and genuinely demented singing from Flo and Eddie (you’ll know them as the singers of The Turtles song ‘Happy Together’). The band can’t act, but they certainly can play.

Speaking of bad acting, I’ve not mentioned two critical cameos: Keith Moon as a nun and Ringo Starr as Frank Zappa. Actually, let me retract that – these cameos are not critical at all, and no doubt came about because, well, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Keith Moon and Ringo Starr while making a ludicrous movie? There’s not much to say about their performances, except to note that in his main scene Keith Moon talks about overdosing on downers, something that has a retrospective sadness.

Perhaps the most coherent section of the film is a cartoon part titled ‘Dental Hygiene Dilemma’. The animation is from the Rhubarb and Custard school (cheap and cheerful), and whereas the rest of the film is brought down by the bad acting, the fact this section – where the main character loses his mind in a hotel room – is animated means that is not an issue. A feature length Zappa animated film in the style of Yellow Submarine would have been interesting, I’m sure.

Oh, one final thing to point out before I sign off – the film features a score performed live by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra members look by turns entertained, confused and angry as they play their parts, with Flo and Eddie chanting the word ‘penis’ in the background. If nothing else, this film was worth making just for their reactions.

I’m going to end with a very unsurprising conclusion: 200 Motels is a microcosm of Zappa’s entire career, both good and bad. In the good column we’ve got the music, which ranges from twisted orchestral numbers to big rock songs; the experimental nature of the whole thing, which was worth doing even if it doesn’t really work; and the playful nature in which it is all delivered – it looks like it was fun to make, even if it isn’t fun to watch.

In the bad column we’ve got the obsession with (rather tame) obscenities; the disorganised nature of the whole thing, which makes it feel rather like a school play where no one knows their lines; and the fact that the subject matter is a touch self indulgent – ultimately it’s hard to care about the plight of successful musicians.

I’d recommend you put down this magazine and put on some Frank Zappa right now – maybe the soundtrack to 200 Motels or one of the two albums I mentioned earlier (‘Hot Rats’ and ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’). But don’t watch this film unless you really have to.