In 200 Motels, the film attempts to portray the craziness of life on the road as a rock musician, and as such consists of a series of unconnected nonsense vignettes interspersed with concert footage of the Mothers of Invention. Ostensibly, while on tour The Mothers of Invention go crazy in the small fictional town of Centerville ("a real nice place to raise your kids up"), wander around, and get beaten up in "Redneck Eats", a cowboy bar. In a long cartoon interlude bassist "Jeff", tired of playing what he refers to as "Zappa's comedy music", is persuaded by his bad conscience to quit the group, as did his real-life counterpart Jeff Simmons, who was fired for insubordination before the film began shooting. Simmons was replaced by Martin Lickert (who was Ringo's chauffeur) for the film. Almost every scene is drenched with video special effects (double and triple exposures, solarisation, false color, speed changes, etc.) which were innovative in 1971. The film has been dubbed a "surrealistic documentary".Frank Zappa as himself
The Mothers of Invention as themselves
Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, the narrator/Master of Ceremonies
Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf, dressed as Frank Zappa
Keith Moon as the hot nun
Howard Kaylan as himself
Mark Volman as himself
Ian Underwood as himself
Ruth Underwood as herself
Don Preston as himself
Jimmy Carl Black as Lonesome Cowboy Burt
Euclid James 'Motorhead' Sherwood as himself (uncredited)
Aynsley Dunbar as himself
George Duke as himself
Jim Pons as himself (uncredited)
Pamela Des Barres as the interviewer
Martin Lickert as "Jeff"
Janet Neville-Ferguson as Groupie #1
Lucy Offerall as Groupie #2
Dick Barber as Chunga - The Vacuum Cleaner
Judy Gridley as the chorus leader
London Philharmonic Orchestra as the bewildered orchestra
In 1970, Frank Zappa formed a new version of The Mothers of Invention which included British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons (bass, rhythm guitar), and three members of The Turtles--bass player Jim Pons, and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan--who, due to persistent legal and contractual problems, adopted the stage name "The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie", or "Flo & Eddie."
Zappa began writing a film for his new lineup called 200 Motels, and the band debuted on Zappa's next solo album Chunga's Revenge (1970), which was produced as a preview of the film. Zappa also met conductor Zubin Mehta. They arranged a May 1970 concert where Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic augmented by a rock band. This material served as a second preview of the film. According to Zappa, the music was mostly written in motel rooms while on tour with The Mothers of Invention. Some of it was later featured in 200 Motels. Although the concert was a success, Zappa's experience working with a symphony orchestra was not a happy one. His dissatisfaction became a recurring theme throughout his career; he often felt that the quality of performance of his material delivered by orchestras was not commensurate with the money he spent on orchestral concerts and recordings.
Zappa pitched the film to United Artists, using a portfolio including a ten-page treatment, two boxes of audio tape, and newspaper clippings. The film studio gave Zappa US$650,000 to finish the project, which Zappa initially intended to premiere on Dutch television before his next tour.
Principal scenes of 200 Motels including the London Philharmonic Orchestra were filmed in a week at Pinewood Studios outside London, and featured The Mothers of Invention, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and Keith Moon. Tensions between Zappa and several cast and crew members arose before and during shooting. However, Director Tony Palmer on his 2009 reissue of 200 Motels claims all elements of the script derived from Frank Zappa's trunk's worth of material were completed during production, and that the film's original video tapes still exist, sitting in front of him while he wrote the DVD liner notes. It was the first feature film photographed on videotape and transferred to 35 mm film utilizing a Technicolor film printer utilized by the BBC, a process which allowed for novel visual effects.
United Artists' press kit for the film stated "For the audience that already knows and appreciates THE MOTHERS, [it] will provide a logical extension of our concerts and recordings." The film premiere was shown at Doheny Plaza Theater in Hollywood, California to mixed reviews.
The soundtrack to 200 Motels was released by United Artists Records on October 4, 1971, and features a combination of rock and jazz songs, orchestral music and comedic spoken dialogue. The rock and comedy songs "Mystery Roach", "Lonesome Cowboy Burt", "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy", "What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning" and "Magic Fingers", and the finale "Strictly Genteel", which mixes orchestral and rock elements, were noted as highlights of the album by reviewer Richie Unterberger.
The score relied extensively on orchestral music, and Zappa's dissatisfaction with the classical music world intensified when a concert, scheduled at the Royal Albert Hall after filming, was canceled because a representative of the venue found some of the lyrics obscene. In 1975, he lost a lawsuit against the Royal Albert Hall for breach of contract. When Penis Dimension was played to the judge, Mr Justice Mocatta, he responded "Have I got to listen to this?". The UK première was not until 29 October 2013, almost 20 years after Zappa's death.
200 Motels charted at #59 on the Billboard 200. The album was not released on compact disc until 1997, as a result of a licensing deal between Rykodisc (at the time the licensee for all of Zappa's other albums from the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT), numbering over 60 titles) and MGM allowing them to re-release numerous rare movie-musical soundtracks on CD. With the addition of this title, Ryko was finally able to offer the complete catalog of official Zappa recordings, as numerous legal proceedings both during Zappa's lifetime and afterwards failed to cede ownership of the rights and tapes to ZFT. That 2-CD edition, now out of print, contained extensive liner notes and artwork as well as a small poster for the film, as well as bonus tracks consisting of radio promos for the film and the single edit of the song "Magic Fingers".
Though many Zappa fans consider this album a key recording of the period, it was deemed by some music critics to be a peripheral album. Allmusic's Richie Unterberger critiqued what he referred to as the "growing tendency to deploy the smutty, cheap humor that would soon dominate much of Zappa's work", but said that "Those who like his late-'60s/early-'70s work [...] will probably like this fine".
After 200 Motels, the band went on tour; the live album Just Another Band From L.A. included the 20-minute track "Billy the Mountain", Zappa's satire on rock opera set in Southern California. This track was representative of the band's theatrical performances in which songs were used to build up sketches based on 200 Motels scenes as well as new situations often portraying the band members' sexual encounters on the road.