Friday, October 24, 2008

Many folks throughout the internets are excited, and justly so, because TCM is airing the little-seen film The World's Greatest Sinner, Timothy Carey's opus that features music by Frank Zappa, early this morning. But nobody's talking about the film that they'll be screening directly after, and one which is almost as little-seen (and currently unavailable on DVD, to the best of my knowledge), Zappa's 1971 200 Motels. It's set to air at 2:45 am Central, 3:45 Eastern...and even though I own the VHS copy, I'd be tempted to watch it if I could stay up that late!

Motels is a very odd and typically free-form movie, done at a time when Frank was beginning to be interested in branching out into filmmaking, and which stars a host of people including Ringo Starr as "Larry the Dwarf", a character that is supposed to be a stand-in for Zappa himself (who only actually appears during concert sequences); Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, aka "Flo and Eddie", former Turtles who were by then performing as members of the Mothers of Invention; Pamela Des Barres (nee Miller) along with the rest of Zappa's groupies-slash-girl group the GTO's; Theo Bikel, who was an actual actor, Keith Moon, who spends most of the movie dressed like a nun, and members of the Mothers both past (Don Preston, Jimmy Carl Black (the "token Indian of the group") who gets a lot of funny lines, Motorhead Sherwood) and present (George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Jim Pons (another former Turtle), and Ian Underwood). Also appearing as Jeff Simmons, one of Zappa's guitarists who bailed just before filming began to tour on his solo album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up, was Moon's chauffeur Martin Lickert.

There is an underlying theme to the mostly chaotic madness- this was said at the time to be a collection of fantasies inspired by the unending tedium of the road. There's a lot of in-jokes about the band members, most notably at Simmons' expense, and many of the set pieces are clever...but the strength of the whole thing, for me at least, remains the intermittent concert sequences that spotlight the Mothers performing songs done for the movie, such as the rocking "Mystery Roach" and "Magic Fingers" (yep, about those vibrating beds in motel rooms), and some of the musical set pieces such as Black's performance of "Lonesome Cowboy Burt", a mock-country tune about a horny redneck in a honky-tonk bar. Black's sour voice is a natural. Zappa's more classical-oriented score pieces are among his best, as well. Otherwise, it can be slow going sometimes, especially during some of the more surreal setpieces. None of the cast, with the possible exception of Bikel, can act at all, although Kaylan and Volman have their moments because they're natural clowns in front of the camera. There's also an amusing animated sequence in the middle, in which Zappa and company poke fun at Donovan and Simmons as well as the whole showbiz thing at the time.

If you find yourself awake in the wee hours, and you haven't seen this, and you're even a little bit of a Zappa fan, you owe it to yourself to see it at least once. I think it's worth setting the TiVo for anyway, so you can watch it at your leisure. Once in a blue moon I'll fish out the VHS tape I have and fast forward to the parts I like. It's kinda crude, and misses as often as it hits, but it's definitely a unique experience, with perhaps only the Monkees' Head rivaling it for whatever it is. No coincidence, Zappa was in that film as well.

Behold the trailer!

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