Quintessential early-’70s “I gotta be me” cinema, this elaborate adaptation of Richard Bach’s best-selling book is fascinatingly weird. As the title suggests, Bach’s novella—which sold more than 1 million copies—is the allegorical story of a seagull who embarks on a spiritual quest, eventually becoming such an enlightened being that he elevates other seagulls beyond the earthly concerns of their everyday existence. The parallels to then-current themes of environmentalism, naturalism, and reincarnation are absurdly obvious—when we first meet him, Jonathan belongs to a flock that lives in a garbage dump, fighting with each other for scraps from man’s refuse. Realizing there must be more to life, and wondering why his fellow birds have so little interest in using their gift for flight to explore the universe, Jonathan experiments with high-speed soaring and gets excommunicated for his rebelliousness. He then embarks on a long odyssey and dies, ascending to some kind of bird heaven where he learns about using his mind to control his body. Then he returns to the mortal plane as a feathered messiah.
The first part of the story is actually quite sincere, but things get silly once Jonathan transforms. However, the film’s painstaking execution makes Jonathan Livingston Seagull unique and, for sympathetic viewers, interesting. Writer-producer-director Hall Bartlett doesn’t feature a single human onscreen, instead relying on footage of carefully trained birds and—for the undeniably beautiful scenes of Jonathan soaring past forests and mountains and oceans—radio-controlled gliders shaped like seagulls. Cinematographer Jack Couffer and the film’s editing team were rightly nominated for Oscars, because the film is a beguiling travelogue. Yet the film’s sounds are more problematic than its visuals. Bartlett shoots close-ups and two-shots during dialogue scenes, treating the animals like actors, and he juxtaposes these images with voice-over tracks performed by Hollywood actors who “play” the different characters. In moderation, this is helpful for clarifying story points; in excess, it’s goofy. (Thankfully, the birds’ beaks aren’t animated to mimic human speech movements.)
The main voice performers are James Franciscus as Jonathan—think overly whispered intensity—and Philip Ahn, of Kung Fu fame, as the hero’s spiritual leader, Chang. Yes, the seagull has an Asian spiritual leader. But wait, as the saying goes, there’s more! Making the earnestness of Franscicus’ performance seem mild by comparison, Neil Diamond wrote and performed several songs that appear during montages, notably the epic ballad “Be.” Diamond’s music is potent, but his lyrics and his singing are cartoonishly overwrought—therefore, the combination of his tunes and Bartlett’s glorious pictures creates an effect, though not necessarily a good effect. Still, this is absolutely unique stuff, and it’s hard to imagine Bach’s book receiving any more reverential treatment. Therefore, it’s odd to discover that Bach sued the producers because he didn’t like Bartlett’s narrative tweaks. That’s a lot of fuss for a low-budget movie that not only flopped at the box office but also received some of the most vitriolic negative reviews of the era. Really, did Bach envision a better talking-seagull movie?
Jonathan Livingston Seagull: FREAKY