200 Motels stars Zappa’s backing band, The Mothers of Invention, playing versions of themselves as they go stir crazy in a small town named Centerville, desperately trying to get laid and/or drunk (or as they put it, trying to find that magic elixir).
On top of that, it also features Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, a man who has “many names” and might also be Satan, Keith Moon of The Who as a groupie dressed like the Flying Nun, and Ringo Starr as Larry the Large Dwarf who spends his time impersonating Frank Zappa.
Zappa himself only appears in the film a few times, never speaking or singing. However, the band members do believe he’s an omnipresent figure who is always watching them through an empty beer bottle.
The actual narrative of the film is made up of various skits, which look like they were shot after hours on the set of a PBS kids show, live concert footage, and general freak outs where deciphering what is happening is pretty much impossible. Nothing makes sense. The combination of screeching music and screeching visuals are enough to induce a migraine. It’s like something out of Videodrome
Most bizarre head trip films tend to give the audience something to hold on to while watching it, like a floating piece of the wreckage after the ship sinks. That stray sense of relatable normality or recognizable narrative that makes the movie accessible despite its psychedelic nature. 200 Motels has barely anything resembling that. The entire time you’re wildly grabbing at the air trying not to drown in its absolute chaos.
Despite frenzied visuals and bizarre storylines, films like Hausu or The Holy Mountain work because they give you relatable characters and create a world full of images that are at least comprehensible. 200 Motels is what happens if you throw spin art in a blender.
It’s not all bad though. There’s many times where the film does manage to work, even if only for a scene or two before getting lost again. The concert sequences are highlights, and are really when the visual style works the best. There’s also a really funny animated bit halfway through about a guy trying to get drunk and high, delivered to the audience under the guise of a dental hygiene cartoon.
If the screenshots intrigued you, then 200 Motels is certainly worth a look. But don’t expect any sort of masterpiece, or any sort of plot for that matter.
200 Motels is currently available to watch on Netflix Instant. A DVD exists but it appears to be a collector’s item.