So Jesus was a seagull. Or in deference to all devout Christians out there, a bird can be a messianic figure once it has a Trial of Billy Jack-like spiritual reawakening. Guess all those sacrosanct sightings in bagels, Danishes, and pizza slices aren’t so silly after all. For anyone old enough to recall the whole Godspell/Superstar revivalism of the early ‘70s (as clear a mea culpa for the preceding ‘60s as any culture can create), Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a plain-speak Bible combined with The Unexpurgated Guide to Water Fowl. It was, to paraphrase Woody Allen, EST with Feathers. Today it would be dismissed as New Age heresy—or perhaps, a literal fine-feathered soup for the easily enlightened soul—but back when flares were fashionable and people were feeling powerless against a corrupt government machine, this was Deepak Chopra with wings.
Joseph Campbell would be proud of the mythos manufactured here. Constantly taking off on his own, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one disgruntled bird. He wants to fly faster, travel farther, and ignore the outdated laws of The Flock’s dictatorial elders. He’s a rebel, and he’ll never ever be anything but undeniably good. Instead of picking at garbage for sustenance, he’d rather try out new dangerous wing patterns and partake of internal monologues. As a result, he soon finds himself outcast from his feathered family. On his own for the first time, he drinks in the initial freedom. He travels across an unnamed nation, experiencing the vastness of the far off horizons.
But as the realities of a life alone start to sink in, Jonathan stumbles. Soon, he finds himself in a surreal world where lives are measured in centuries, not years, and where reincarnation allows his kind to transcend their body and teleport through space. After learning more about his special spiritual powers, Jonathan returns to The Flock. He wants to spread the Word about the world outside their landfill living conditions. He even takes another non-conformist seagull under his wing. Tragedy tests both of their mantles. It’s all part of being one with the cosmos and discovering your inner self.
Author Richard Bach, writer of this unquestionable cultural phenomenon that drove many a stunned student directly to the water pipe, was lambasted for cookie-cutter literary sloppiness and a far-too-liberal interpretation of man’s secular status in the cosmic hierarchy - but that didn’t hurt his bank account any. Every matriculating freshman found this best-selling bird book smack dab in the middle of the required-reading list, while older generations, desperate for some post-sexual revolution respite, tucked into the novel’s altruistic excess like highballs at an open bar. As with most fads, it quickly faded, but just to put a cap on the craze, writer/director Hal Bartlett brought the fable to the big screen.
If you can tolerate the touchy-feely foundation of Bach’s backwards belief system, and then Zen hit maker Neil Diamond’s sonic take on same, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a stunning artistic experience. It is, without a doubt, one of the more visually magnificent movies ever made. Oscar-nominated for its outstanding cinematography (by Disney True-Life Adventures photographer Jack Couffer) and editing (vast sweeping vistas courtesy of Jack P. Keller and James Galloway), it is a sumptuous optical wonder, a nature-based work of cinematic art. You can stuff your CGI – this is scope sans unnecessary visual tweaks.
When we first meet the title character, he is soaring majestically through cotton soft clouds and over hyper-realistic seashore settings. It’s the Garden of Eden as clear California dreamin’. As slow motion waves crash against abandoned beaches, our hero hovers and dives, sun setting slowing to produce a perfect orange glow. It’s just incredible. Jonathan Livingston Seagull actually plans on using this image-based bravado for the vast majority of its storytelling—and we’re willing to buy it, up to a point. Indeed, the minute Mr. “Song Sung Blue” opens his pipes to pitch operatic, we start to shrink from the conceit. There is technically nothing wrong with Diamond’s score. It’s never pop songy, but it does get mighty saccharine and silly at times.
When the birds begin to speak, however, all bets are off. Since the book allowed the interaction between the avian characters to be semi-subjective in nature, it was an easier premise to buy. But when given the voice of a slightly irritating nebbish, Mr. Seagull becomes spoiled. There are several times throughout the course of this film when you wish a parent or down-covered pal would walk up to our hero and smack him upside the beak. If you’re going to anthropomorphize a creature, why make him so gosh-darned whiny and borderline insufferable?
You can almost hear actor James Franciscus balk during the voice-over. He can’t believe some of the lumbering lines he’s given. Luckily, everyone else is much less grating. Richard Crenna, Juliet Mills, Hal Holbrook, and Dorothy McGuire all do a bang-up job of making us believe these motionless entities are actually conversing (this is 1973, remember—a tad too soon for F/X moving mouths). While it may have been possible to make this film without all of Bach’s TM-laden psychobabble, it does help deliver the movie’s main point. Without it, we’d have 100 minutes of lovely landscapes and little else.
Thematically, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is stuck in supporting something best described as ‘nice guy non-conformity’. Our amiable albatross wants desperately to teach The Flock what he knows—about flying, about living, about avoiding eating your meals out of a massive rubbish heap. But according to our mighty author, people…sorry, gulls are the winged version of sheep—easily led and dumb as dirt. Jonathan must have a near-death epiphany, followed by a full-blown psychedelic freak-out, before he learns the power of one…bird. The sudden shift into New Testament territory begins when our hero delivers his sermon on the mount…of garbage. Then he resurrects a fellow gull who flew too close to a hazard, Icarus style, and cracked his plumed coconut. Sadly, there is no Passion like scourging. This was 1972 after all.
During the final fifteen minutes, we keep waiting for the cast of Disney’s Tropical Tiki Room Revue to step up and start singing “Could We Start Again Please.” It all gets very heavy handed and meta-metaphysical, trying to be every dogma to all mankind. Yet buried inside all the self-reflection and actualization is a kindly missive about being yourself and avoiding the corrosion of conventionality. So if you simply give the story its dated wacky packaging and enjoy the sights, you’ll get a great deal out of this preachy pictorial. Jonathan Livingston Seagull may argue for unrealistic altruism, individual sacrifice and the quest for freedom, but he remains—at least in film form—a pretty inconsistent pigeon to carry such a heavy handed communication.
For those of us fond of our formative years, reflecting with a new sense of personal perspective on everything and everyone that made those glorified days important, a few instrumental entities are bound to fail the significance test. Mood rings, space food sticks, and George McGovern do indeed become less momentous in the light of a three decade space time update. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another such artifact. As a film, it has a visual power that’s destined to endure. As a philosophy, it gives the Reverend Moon and his group marrying followers a real run for their money.