As a famous first, Frank Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels set a standard for hundreds of wacky experimental, B-movies to come. The first full-length film shot entirely on videotape, the cheap alternative to film that had thus far been used primarily for TV shows and news broadcasts, the movie exploited the medium’s every possibility. “If there is more that can be done with videotape,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review at the time, “I do not want to be there when they do it.”
The movie is not only a “joyous, fanatic, slightly weird experiment in the uses of the color videotape process”; it is also a visual encapsulation of Zappa’s most comically juvenile, most musically virtuosic sensibilities, with Ringo Star playing “Zappa as ‘a very large dwarf,’” the Mothers of Invention playing themselves, Keith Moon appearing as a nun, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra taking abuse from Zappa, and a series of rowdy, raunchy misadventures piled one atop the other.
“It assaults the mind with everything on hand,” Ebert both marveled and half-complained. “Videotape reportedly allowed Zappa to film the entire movie in about a week, to do a lot of the editing and montage in the camera and to use cheap videotape for his final editing before transferring the whole thing to a surprisingly high-quality 35mm image.” As the making-of documentary below notes, the movie was edited without “the use of computer facilities,” and its layers of effects helped invent new aesthetic forms which now feel quite familiar.
Hyperkinetic, surrealist, and bizarre, 200 Motels is a mélange of animation, musical performance, crude jokes, and “a kind of magical mystery trip,” wrote Ebert, “through all the motels, concert halls, cities, states and groupies of a road tour.” It was not beloved by critics then (though Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars) and still gets a mixed reception. It may or may not be the “kind of movie you have to see more than once,” given its full-on sensory assault.
But Zappa’s experimental tour de force is essential viewing for Zappa fans, and also for students of the videotape aesthetic that has become an almost classic style in its own right. We can see in 200 Motels the roots of the music video—Zappa was a decade ahead of MTV—though, for better or worse, its “whimsically impenetrable plotline and absurdist sub-Monty Python humor,” as Ian Gittens writes at The Guardian, “were met with widespread bafflement and it sank without a trace.”
In the 80s, however, 200 Motels found new life in a format that seemed well suited to its look, VHS. Then it found a home on the internet, that Valhalla of ancient video of every kind. A touted DVD boxset, it appears, will not be coming. (Seems the distributer has been slapped with a “winding up order” of some kind.) But you can find it on disc, “intact and with the correct aspect ratio” as one happy reviewer notes.
Whatever medium you happen to watch 200 Motels on, your experience of it will very much depend on your tolerance for Zappa’s brand of scatological satire. But if you’re willing to take Roger Ebert’s word for such things, you should try to see this oddball piece of movie history at least once.