Directed by Tony Palmer and Frank Zappa
Starring Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, Frank Zappa, Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan, Keith Moon (as a nun), Martin Lickert, Janet Ferguson, Lucy Offerall, and various members and groupies of the Mothers of Invention.
OK. The film is a mess. But what a mess!
I became a fan of Frank Zappa in the early 70s, when I go a copy of We're Only In It For the Money. I liked humorous music, and loved Zappa's anarchistic take on American life. So I went out and paid more than I should for Freak Out and then started picking up albums by Zappa and the Mothers as I could find them.
But Zappa and the Mothers (the "of Invention" was added by the record company) were more than just a comedy group. Zappa was a very talented and ambitious composer, often looking toward modern classical music as inspiration. He was also a keen social observer. The more you look into his work, the more you realize he was something greater than just a rock songwriter.
And when I heard they were doing a movie, I was there.
This was when Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were with the group. Volman and Kaylan were original members of the Turtles, one of the original feel-good rock groups (ironic note: on Freak Out!, Zappa derisively quoted a music executive who wanted to make the Mothers as big as the Turtles). They brought a sensibility to the Mothers that was even wackier and more risqué than ever before.
The movie was made on video. Nowadays, this isn't unusual, but back in 1971 it was. Tony Palmer, a British TV director, directed the film's visuals, and he relied on the techniques of cutting edge video artists of the time -- Nam June Paik, William Wegman (yes, the dog guy -- his video work in the 60s is where he started), Ed Emshwiller. This allowed for some great (and cheap) psychedelic effects -- colors wrapping around people, ultra sharp visuals, chroma keys, animated segments (see below) etc. It was perfect for the psychedelic era.
Zappa himself directed the actors -- though the term "directing" should be used very loosely. Only Theodore Bickel was really a professional actor (and seemed completely bewildered by everything going on). Ringo Starr, of course, had an acting career, but the rest of the cast were just members and groupies of the band. Some had even less experience: Martin Lickert was Ringo Starr's chauffer, a last-minute replacement for a musician who quit the group. He got the part when Zappa said that it would go to the next person who came into the room; it was Lickert, who was getting a pack of cigarettes for Ringo (he actually acquitted himself well).
The story is supposedly how life was on the road for the Mothers, with Lickert being tempted by Bikel (as the devil) to leave the group, but it's too free-form to even being to summarize (though this site tries and manages quite well). It was recorded live -- no lipsyching -- with all-original music by Zappa. There are plenty of in-jokes and self-referential humor (at one point, the members of the band want to help Lickert before Zappa finds out and makes him do it in the movie).
The movie is not for everyone; its base audience is hard-core Frank Zappa fans. But visually it's amazing, and there is enough plot and good music (though, admitted, Zappa's music is often an acquired taste) to entertain anyone, especially if, like me, you love weirdness for its own sake.
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