Zappa on film: 200 Motels


Having produced the movie, Frank Zappa explains that the idea for the film came to him while the Mothers of Invention were touring. The movie portrays the life of the Mothers of Invention, who are all mainly playing themselves minus a few parts, touring on the road. “Touring can make you crazy”, announces ex-Beatle Ringo Starr at the start of the movie, And that’s exactly what 200 Motels embodies and is all about. With the band stopping in Centerville (“a real nice place to raise your kids up”), another stopover on a long tour, the members deal with the concerns of the constant search for groupies, the desire to get paid, and arguments within the band. Although absurd and witty, throughout the movie there are a wide range of connections that resonate between the film and Frank Zappa’s life, career, and artistic opus which contribute to his conceptual continuity as a whole.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Frank Zappa’s conceptual continuity being carried throughout the film is in the role of the groupies. The groupies are played by Janet Ferguson, a real life groupie playing herself, and Lucy Offerall, a member of the GTO’s. Following the opening of the film, we are quickly immersed into the lifestyle of the groupie culture, as we are introduced to the girls as they prepare themselves for an evening of meeting rock stars. The girls appear in a bizarre nudity sequence, along with the Hot Nun who is overdosing on drugs, being played by The Who’s drummer Keith Moon. The scene depicts groupies as being cynical, sceptical, grotesque, and aggressive in nature almost. The songs “she painted up her face” and “Daddy, daddy, daddy” outline these ideas of the young groupie girls getting ready to go to the bar where guys from the musical groups are. On the other side of things, you have the band members competing with one another over the groupies and there attention. This concept of the girls following musicians from town to town in the film is a draw from Frank Zappa’s and the Mothers of Inventions real life on the road, it is an almost autobiography of the situations and dilemmas a band must cope and deal with.

What I found to be most amusing about the film was the casting of Ringo Starr, the drummer of the pop group The Beatles, as Frank Zappa. The Beatles directly contributed to the growth of the music industry and are known as one of the most influential bands ever. But regardless of how influential they are, there is a very apparent and evident difference between their genius and Zappa’s genius. It’s like, On one hand you have The Beatles who pushed the music and entertainment industry to the masses, and on the other you have Zappa who used his musical force to counter popular culture and trends. Knowing that Frank Zappa apparently never thought much of The Beatles, I find it too strange a coincidence to have Ringo Starr playing his character in the film. It was Frank Zappa who first approached Ringo about playing the role of Larry the dwarf and the leader of the MOI, to which he accepted on the notion that he was getting “a bit browned-off” with his good-guy image. Having Ringo Starr appear as Larry the Dwarf lends some humorous narration to the film, as well as a taste of delicious irony. Placing Ringo in the role of Frank Zappa allows one to draw parallels between the two icons. Whether it was to show that Frank Zappa wasn’t just some vulgar, dirty, and obscene musician by presenting the polished and well respected image of Ringo or if it was strictly for promotion, the ironic symbolism is still apparent. Furthermore, To anyone who knows any accounts of what really went on behind the scenes on The Beatles tours, the fact that Zappa was able to persuade Ringo Starr to appear in 200 Motels is rather tongue and cheek in nature.

Finally, one of the more concentrated themes throughout the film 200 Motels and Zappa’s life, career, and artistic material that contribute to his conceptual continuity is that of the dragged-out disoriented states of band members. Frank Zappa’s moral stance on drugs has always been a bit of a revelation and paradox within itself, I mean, how can someone who was so intertwined with the psychedelic and groupie rock scenes of the 60’s and 70’s have such an anti-drug stance? Truth is Frank cared more for his music then he did about the lifestyle that accompanied it, believing that people who were on drugs were “assholes in action”. He took a strong anti-drug approach to the musicians that he played with, having absolutely no tolerance for band members and there dealings with drugs, making sure there was no use of drugs whatsoever on stage. Over the course of Zappa’s career he has fired and removed numerous members from his band for poor conduct in relation to drugs and alcohol. This theme of the disoriented state of band members plays an integral part in 200 Motels, which appears when Jeff, a former band member, takes drugs in a motel room and subsequently decides he is wasting his life and talent in Zappa’s band, when one of the band members creates a potion and feeds it to another musician, who returns to his hotel room to hallucinate. These scenes outline a history of events that Zappa has dealt with throughout his career as a musician. Thus, Zappa uses the film 200 Motels as a medium to display what happens to bands and musicians along the way, the temptations vs. the expectations of touring on the road.

 

In conclusion, the film 200 Motels is a portrayal of Zappa’s concepts, ideas, and morals as a whole. It is not a single movie about something, but rather a movie about everything. Through using actors who are mainly playing themselves he is able to introduce his audience to his version of what it is like to tour with a band, and how it affects everyone differently. This is Zappa’s kick at creating a rock opera of his own standards, and includes all his ideas and concepts ranging from groupies to disorientated band members, but all together contributing to his conceptual continuity

 

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