Strange, awkward, abnormal and still extremely banal. Awful storyline, very odd execution of a pointless script and disturbing real-bird-life documentation. At the same time, perhaps the most mind-blowing photography and cinematography to come from the Seventies, and an astonishing soundtrack by Neil Diamond. Richard D. Bach’s beautiful novel should have never turned into a film — unless it had been animation. But it did. And like all things that shouldn’t have happened and feel wrong whichever way you look at them — Jonathan Livingston Seagull too, is enjoyable.
Whoever has read the short-but-sweet novel by Richard D. Bach, knows that there isn’t much of a story to tell. An ambitious seagull (Jonathan Livingston) grows to gradually wonder whether this is all there is to it. He starts to want more and little by little becomes unable to compromise with the mundane and restricted seagull life. Soon, he tries to fly higher and faster than the others. He fails and he succeeds. He lives, and he learns. He wins some, and he loses some.
The problem, however, is that in real life — and with real birds — this story is difficult to tell, bizarre to direct, and so unsettling to watch. If Jonathan Livingston’s tale were to have been animated, then the birds could be speaking. But here, why are they? If we were dealing with cartoons, the bird could have been the same from beginning to end, offering thus at least a little bit of credibility. It could have been a purple or yellow seagull, and still gain more credibility than these shots of various different birds pretending to be Jonathan. And those animated birds could also crash. They could fall from the sky and right on their faces, open in two and then stand up and try to fly again. But in a creepy documentary-lookalike film like this one, why do we need to see a poor bird getting damaged again and again?
The questions are many. And so are the flaws. But then there are a few assets that make Jonathan Livingston Seagull almost worth our time. For starters, Jack Cooffer’s cinematography — there is really, nothing like it. If one can shut out the birds speaking and focus on the images, then the photography is out of this world. The powerful colours and their natural depth, the big open skies above a swelling sea, the rocky and competitive mountains. The world is portrayed as the most beautiful as well as scariest place to be in. You want to own it, but feel the need to hide from it. You want to rule it, but you’re awaken to the reality that it is the world that will always educate you.
And then there’s the music. Neil Diamond’s splendid soundtrack is the only reason I don’t recommend muting the film and purely enjoying this feeling of flying above the world that Jack Coofer’s cinematography has to offer. No, the music is too important, and Neil’s compositions are definitely too great for this story, for this movie, and for what writer-director Hall Bartlett delivers in the end. If the whole bird-talking idea had been ditched, and double the album tracks had dressed these extraordinary images, the movie would be a guilt-free pleasure. But now, we have to watch it when no one’s looking…
Based on a great book and delivered through striking images and powerful music, Hall Bartlett’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull is cringe-worthy but also amusing. It’s simple-minded and at times, even sickening, but it’s this triviality and unjustified eccentricity that pushes this film up to a cult level. Unfortunately, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly — and yes, it is for all the wrong reasons that I do.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull at IMDb
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (film) at Wikipedia
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (novel) at Wikipedia
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (album) at Wikipedia
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
Richard Bach at Wikipedia
Neil Diamond at Wikipedia