At long last, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (JLS) is available on DVD - and about time too. Originally released in 1973, you'd have thought that with songs by Neil Diamond, superb orchestrations by Lee Holdridge and spectacular cinematography by Jack Couffer ASC, the film would have been a sure-fire hit. Unfortunately, it failed to take flight at the box office (if you'll excuse the pun) and was mauled by the critics - not that it stopped the public from buying the album by the bucket-load (it went Gold on 30 October 1973 and Multi-Platinum on 21 November 1986). Janet Maslin in Rolling Stone thought the score `better-than-average', although she couldn't resist adding that `most film soundtracks are a priori the most average-sounding music to be found anywhere', thereby exhibiting the slightly superior attitude towards film music still, unfortunately, found in some quarters even today. Naturally enough she also took a pot shot at `Diamond's aggressively arty lyrics', the 110-strong orchestra and the album cover itself - in her view, `a mind-boggling landmark in packaging pretension'. As Neil Diamond album covers go it's actually rather good (one can only conclude she'd forgotten the truly gruesome cover of Velvet Gloves and Spit) and let's be honest, you could get away with this sort of thing in the early 1970s. The `summer of love' was a recent, not a distant memory and a certain pseudo-philosophical, hippy, `new-age' artiness was all the rage.
In fact, the songs by Neil Diamond and the score, brilliantly arranged and orchestrated by Lee Holdridge, come together to form that rare beast: a soundtrack which complements the film whilst standing up perfectly well as a work in its own right. This is extremely hard to pull off and few songwriters or composers manage to achieve it (Leonard Bernstein's `On the Waterfront' suite is perhaps the pre-eminent example of the film score as concert work). It was unfortunate that the film became mired in legal disputes. Richard Bach, author of the cult book on which the film was based, sued the producers on the basis that the screenplay deviated too greatly from his original work; Neil Diamond sued, on the grounds that some of his music had been replaced without his consent; only the seagulls didn't sue (they said they were perfectly happy with the end product) but this shouldn't have coloured anyone's appreciation of the music, which, let's be honest, is really rather good. If Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland had all gotten together to write an opera about seagulls it might have sounded something like this (although, how they would have staged it at the Met is anyone's guess).
The prologue is a perfect example of how to score the opening of a film. Lee Holdridge achieved the same effect with that miraculous opening to Neil Diamond's best live album, `Hot August Night'. On first hearing, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a recording of genteel chamber music by the Endellion String Quartet - it's the very opposite of what you'd expect to open a rock concert, but that slow build-up from just a few stringed instruments to a tremendous explosion of sound is just about the most exciting opening to a live album that you're ever likely to hear. A similar effect is achieved with the prologue to JLS; although it's not followed, you may be relieved to learn, by one of the seagulls breaking into a rendition of Crunchy Granola Suite.
It's not just the music for JLS which is outstanding: the cinematography is breathtaking, particularly when you consider that the film was made in the pre-CGI era. We've all become accustomed to seeing spectacular wildlife photography on our television screens in programmes such as Planet Earth, but some of the sequences in JLS are a match for anything the BBC has to offer. The philosophy of JLS may seem simple-minded to some, but it will appeal to anyone who's felt the urge to rise above the dull conformity of everyday existence - not necessarily by flying higher than anyone else. It may also come as a relief to many to watch a film which doesn't consist almost entirely of over-the-top special effects, extraneous and irrelevant action sequences or people driving Smart cars very quickly.
Watching JLS again after so many years, it seems a shame that the critics strangled the film at birth and a pity that Neil Diamond and Lee Holdridge never worked together again. They clearly had a great musical affinity, as the former attested in an interview in 1971 in which he described the composer / conductor as `super-talented', adding that `we think alike in many ways ... we identify with the songs similarly'. However, after JLS, Lee Holdridge went on (and continues) to enjoy a highly successful career as a composer for both film and television. Several of his scores are available on CD, as are some of his classical compositions. Unforgivably, the score failed to secure even a nomination for an Academy Award (although it was nominated in the best cinematography and best film editing categories) but at least Neil Diamond picked up a Grammy and a Golden Globe for JLS and rightly so - the film features some of his best songs.
Sadly, there are no extras or `making of' features on this DVD. This is a pity - it would have been interesting, for example, to find out how the seagull who played Jonathan (a consummate method actor if ever there was one) approached the role. We shall never know. That aside, the DVD is definitely worth watching. So, forget the critics and just sit back and soar with the seagulls - you may be pleasantly surprised.