Editor’s Note: Sam Panico previously reviewed this Christian-leaning extensional film as part of our February 2020 “Box Office Failures” theme week of reviews. As we fill out our ever-expanding database of reviews of “Christian Cinema” films from the ’70s that we’ve missed, we brought this film back for another look.
Sam and I are split on this film. But he hasn’t outcast me, as was Jonathan, from the B&S flock. For we are still united in our love of Godfrey Ho and Bruno Mattei films. And there will always be The Astrologer, right Sam?
And what does this all have to do with the “Jesus Rock” movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s? Read on, brother.
The September 17, 1981, cover of Rolling Stone #352, with a picture of Jim Morrison emblazoned on the cover, proclaimed: He’s Hot, He’s Sexy and Dead. In the early ’70s, the same could be said about Jesus Christ, for the Son of God ruled the airwaves and theater screens.
To set up the “why” of this tale of existential seagulls (as well as the “hippie Jesus” romps Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar), we need to look back to the positive message of the “Jesus Rock” movement born out of the disillusioned “Summer of Love” of the late ’60s.
At the time, as Sam Pacino pointed out in his review of the Christian apoc-documentary The Late Great Planet Earth*, the hippie occult generation’s dreams flamed out at Altamont and was annihilated on Cielo Drive. I have to add that, the hippies, whether they accepted it or not, were long since assimilated by Madison Avenue. There was still money to be made at the expense of the “Summer of Love,” for it was no longer an ideal, but a marketing campaign.
Enter Brother J. to breath new life into a down-the-tubes advertising crusade.
The short-lived “Jesus Rock” genre (for a contemporary context: think of the 36-month run of the Nirvana-driven Grunge era) hit its peak in 1972 when the Doobie Brothers scored a Top 40 hit with “Jesus Is Just Alright.” Other bands topping the Billboard charts were the Stephen Stills-led “supergroup” Manassass (with Chris Hillman of the Byrds) and “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free” (1972) (remembering the Byrds started the genre with their 1969-version of the Doobies’ later hit), the folk-rocking “Now Be Thankful” by Fairport Convention (1970), “Jesus is a Soul Man” by Lawrence Reynolds (1970), Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the the Sky” (1970), Charlie Allen and his band Pacific Gas & Electric with “Are You Ready” (1971), Sweathog with “Hallelujah,” “Put Your Hand in the Hand” (1971) by the Canadian band Ocean, “Joy to the World” (1971) by Three Dog Night, and “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” by Ozark Mountain Daredevils (1974). Pop music fans forget that Top 40-meister Tommy James of the Shondells followed up his early, playful hits of “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and “Mony, Mony” with an album that professed his faith, his second album, Christian of the World (1971); that “Jesus Rock” entry scored two U.S. Top 40 hits with the songs “Draggin’ the Line” and “I’m Coming Home.” (No, the prior song isn’t about cocaine use (“doing lines”), but about the futility of man’s efforts under God.)
Myrrh Records, a leading Christian music label, had their catalog distributed via A&M Records, which brought Petra (a Southern/Country Rock concern) to a national stage. Ohio’s Glass Harp (friends with the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, then of the James Gang), signed with Decca, and the Resurrection Band broke new ground with their Zeppelin/Sabbath “heavy blues” take on the genre. The smash hit, Broadway “Rock Operas” Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were adapted into films; their respective cast albums and soundtracks topped the charts, with singles from each becoming Top 40 hits for Murray Head, Yvonne Elliman, Helen Ready, and even Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.
So, with Columbia and Universal releasing their competing films versions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 (in March and August, respectively), the odd-studio out, Paramount, wasn’t missing the “Jesus Rock” boat. So they optioned writer Richard Bach’s 1970 best-selling novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And since the book — as did the two stage-to-films that inspired its production — didn’t come with a soundtrack, Paramount, through Columbia Records (his label), contracted Neil Diamond to write a companion piece to the book/film. Yes, Neil Diamond, the bane of many’s musical existence (not me), made a “Jesus Rock” album — and topped the album and singles charts.
Jonathan (aka Jesus Christ, voiced by James Francisus) tires of the boring life in his sea-gull clan. So he experiments with new, always more daring flying techniques (putting way the flesh and finding his spiritual side). Since his spiritual quest goes against the communal grains, the flock’s elders (Hal Holbrook) expel him from the clan (as was, if you know your Bible, Jesus). So Jonathan sets out upon the Earth to discover wisdom, find disciples, and a higher reason for being.
Needless to say, the general public had a hard enough time comprehending spiritually conflicted, sentient computers and alien interpretations of heaven as an all white-luxury hotel suite, as an astronaut traveled his “inner space” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, most — film critic Roger Ebert infamously walked out of the film — weren’t going for intelligent seagulls backed by a Neil Diamond soundtrack.
The seagulls, of course, do not actually talk; you’re hearing their “thoughts,” as it were, courtesy of a voice cast rounded out by Juliet Mills and Richard Crenna. You have to give Hall Bartlett credit, who, without the benefits of CGI or animation, somehow managed to film seagulls and frame it with dialog to give us an impression the gulls, in fact, talk.
If Roma Downey and her husband/producing cohort Mark Burnett (who found great success with their The Bible miniseries and 2014’s Son of God) remade this, courtesy of technology, the gulls — as do all of the animals in today’s films and television commercials, would actually, “talk.”
But let’s let this one be.
If you enjoyed the book — which many (criminally) dismissed as metaphysical drivel and thus, hated the movie — you’ll love the movie, a movie that is of its time and place: a time when seagulls could talk and Jesus was, in fact, “hot, sexy and dead.”
You can enjoy the soundtrack, in its entirety, on You Tube. The film is easily found on multiple PPV streaming platforms.
* We’ve also taken a second look at The Late Great Planet Earth, this week. We also explore thirty-plus faith-based films — and reference many more precursors — with our “Exploring: Christian Cinema of the ’70s” feature.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.
In the ’70s, every single person I knew had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The movie adaptation doesn’t really work (maybe an animated film was the way to go), but it is a great curiosity nevertheless. Cinematography and the Neil Diamond soundtrack are big pluses. Anyhow, congratulations on the excellent review — very informative and insightful!
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