tony palmer's film of frank zappa's 200 motels

I’ve read so much rubbish about 200 Motels over the years, much of it fiction, much of it originating with Frank Zappa himself, that the release of the newly restored film on DVD gives me an opportunity - my first - to correct one or two of the wilder stories about how the film came about and what really happened during the filming.Contrary to what Frank Zappa and his biographers have asserted, when I first became involved there was no script, just a trunk-load of papers containing scenes ‘from the life of’. My ‘job’, Frank said, was to make some sense of this jumble and try to construct a coherent script from which a film, any film, would emerge. True, Frank had written a pile of music, some good, some not so good, but no  orchestra had been booked, no soloists, no choir, no choreographer. My second ‘job’ therefore was to organise all this at very short notice. Normally, you need to book a London orchestra – especially if you required them for a week - at least a year in advance. I had three weeks in which to find a top class, professional orchestra.
Next, although the film was entirely Frank’s idea, MGM/UA were unwilling to trust him with a feature film, even if it was estimated to cost only around half a million dollars. (It finally cost $679,000). In fact, they had turned him down as the director of the film, and insisted on a safe pair of hands to make sure something emerged for their money. It so happened that I had been offered a picture deal by MGM a little earlier (which I had also turned down), and it was Herb Cohen, Frank Zappa’s longsuffering manager, who, knowing this and knowing that Frank had worked with me before, put the jigsaw together.Next, it was clear that many of the scenes could not be shot the way Frank envisaged them on conventional celluloid, or rather they could be shot, but would take an age and a lot of money (neither of which we had) because of the special effects involved. It was me who suggested using videotape, not Frank Zappa, because I was already experimenting with video effects using the earliest colour video cameras that had arrived at the BBC only three years before. Initially, MGM/UA vetoed this idea because, as they quite reasonably pointed out, videotape (“what is that?” one executive asked me) could not be projected in their cinemas.It was a colleague in Technicolor London who came up with the solution, namely that since the old pre-war Technicolor process involved shooting with three different negatives (red, green & blue) run in parallel, and since the television image in those days also comprised three different elements - red, green & blue, it might be possible to transfer each element separately to the different negatives and, when printed together, a true fi lm ‘transfer’ might result. Which is precisely what happened, and the first ever ‘film transfer’ from videotape resulted. MGM/UA was satisfied, because they now had ‘a film’, not a videotape. Frank Zappa was satisfied because he could now have all the effects he desired, quickly and relatively inexpensively. But he had nothing to do with discovering the process; in fact, I’m not too sure he understood it. Nonetheless I’ve often read that he ‘pioneered’ the whole thing, a porky that is repeated in the totally misleading film about the ‘making of’ made by the Dutch television station, VPRO.In this same film, Zappa asserts that only a third of his script was filmed. Nonsense.  The director (me) “quit mid-production”, which is news to me, as well as several actors and a band member. More fiction. Wilfred Brambell, a famous British character actor (famous especially as ‘Steptoe’) refused the part he was offered, and Jeff Simmons was replaced by Martin Lickert in the role of Jeff because he had the temerity to call Frank Zappa an ego-maniac. All true, but Zappa’s later claim that these events “accounted for several radical, last-minute changes” is yet more nonsense.
Apparently – according to the Dutch documentary – when I had quit, I had threatened to wipe the tapes – which is odd, considering I edited all the videotapes myself after completion of filming before handing them over to MGM/UA. I’ve also read that the out-takes and the videotapes on which they were stored were wiped and sold back to MGM/UA to reduce the overspend. No company such as MGM/UA would ever accept second-hand tapes, even if wiped, not least because the tapes would be more-or-less worthless. Another Zappa wopper.  It begins to sound as if I am attempting to pour scorn on Frank Zappa’s achievement. Quite the contrary. It’s impossible not to have a sneaking admiration for a film which self evidently would never have been made had it not been for him and his curious talent.
And, crazy though the film seems to be, it does have a certain insight into how ‘life on the road’ was for many of these rock bands at that time. The fact is also that, here we are, nearly 40 years later, and there is still a huge market/interest for the film.  Oh, and by the way, according to several websites devoted to the film, because I had ‘been fired’ and/or ‘quit’ (delete whichever you think is applicable) I went off and destroyed the master tapes – which is very odd considering that these very same master tapes are sitting in front of me as I write.And finally, that as a result of any of the above (you choose which), Frank & I ‘never spoke again’. Which is even odder, because a couple of years later when Zappa sued the Royal Albert Hall in London for cancelling a concert in which he had intended to perform the music from 200 Motels, I appeared at the trial in The Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand as Frank Zappa’s ‘expert witness’. Would Zappa have wanted that had we not stayed friends?So, forty years on, I’m proud to be associated with the film, proud to have known Frank Zappa, and proud to have stayed his friend, in spite of all the rubbish that (mostly) others have written about what ‘really’ happened.
TONY PALMER-text © from Voiceprint-site & dvd insert.
Een officiele uitgave van 200 Motels was er nog niet. Nu is het plotseling David Palmer's film of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels geworden. Wij dachten altijd dat Palmer Zappa geholpen had... Tsja. Wij dachten wel meer. Omdat ik de film altijd in rokerige achterafzaaltjes gezien heb, of via een een illegale kopie op DVD of via een legale, maar slechte video is deze versie erg helder en scherp. Behalve de beeldkwaliteit voegt het echter weinig toe. De muziek klonk altijd al 'dun' en dat is helaas niet verbeterd. De film biedt niets nieuws, we kennen alles al. Jammer dat er geen outtakes gebruikt zijn of een director's cut. Het zullen de auteursrechten wel weer zijn. Als ik het daarover heb, kijk eens naar de 'tracks', zo kennen we ze niet. De lijn in de film is daarmee echter wel duidelijk. Het begeleidend boekje is in stijl van de originele LP (!) gedaan. Mooi. De tekst - links - staat daar ook in. Het blijft een grappige film, maar steeds meer tijdgebonden en steeds minder 'cult' vind ik. Een film die nu niet meer gemaakt zou worden door voortschrijdend inzicht.  "Mad, bad, dangerous" roept de LA-Times op de voorzijde van de doos. Mad zeker, slecht in zekere zin ook, maar dan meer filmisch gezien. Gevaarlijk? Laat me niet lachen, voor Amerikanen wel denk ik, maar de nuchtere Hollander? Kopen? Ach, ik weet niet. Als je hem nog nooit gezien hebt wel, anders...
Paul Lemmens - 2010 / 2018 © pics © ZFT/TP