Exploring the world through global cinema

Lost On A Painted Sky

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Elvis Costello

Several months ago, I wrote what could only described as a shameless paean to two of my all-time favourite soundtracks – soundtracks to films I hadn’t seen, and how this made them simply great pieces of music in their own right. In a similar vein this week, I look into the phenomenon of the film soundtrack you love and enjoy before finally seeing the production itself, and how both are changed by the experience. The Hans Zimmer fan, for example, having enjoyed his scores from Rain Man to Gladiator may buy the album for Inception, even if a recurring stomach ulcer inflamed by the perpetual pouting of Leonardo diCaprio will prevent them from actually seeing the film itself. Soundtrack albums often take on a successful life of their own entirely independent of the film: how many have the score to Pulp Fiction without having actually seen it? It is to this particular category that my first personal choice belongs, that being Neil Diamond’s memorable musical marriage to the less-than-memorable ‘epic’:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

(1973) Music by Neil Diamond

“Listen, everybody! There’s no limit to how high we can fly! We can dive for fish and never have to live on garbage again!”

Fifty years ago, Buddhism had permeated the pop culture of the day, influencing every artist from The Beatles to American author Richard Bach. In the eponymous novel, Jonathan is a seagull cast out of his flock for daring to suggest that there is more to life than squabbling over food scraps. With his talent for flying (the reader is encouraged to put aside the obvious point that all seagulls have a singular talent in this arena) and wanderlust powered by an eternal curiosity, he rises to new levels of consciousness, discovers that Heaven is not a place but a state of mind, and that all things are possible for those who dare to dream. First published in 1970, Jonathan Livingston Seagull became one of the most famous U.S novels of the 20th Century and is still in print today. Its ultimately upbeat, can-do attitude is perfectly attuned to American sensibilities, predating the self-help innervations of Anthony Robbins by decades and appearing at a time when the nation was in rapid growth. It was not without its critics though, some of whom derided it for being overly simplistic, dull, preachy and anti-Christian.

Film-maker Hall Bartlett meanwhile decided in 1973 that the tale was fit for the big screen, despite the seagull-heavy nature of the characters and the fact that there was no such thing as CGI. Obvious material therefore for an animation one might think, but to Bartlett, it was a live-action extravaganza or nothing. More of this later.

Jonathan is a seagull who believes there's more to life than fighting and squabbling with each other over resources - an allegory that works better in the theatre of the imagination.

Unsurprisingly, I was not especially aware of this when I first discovered the soundtrack around the age of four. It simply seemed to be an album by someone calling himself either ‘Neil Diamond’ or ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ (equally plausible at that point in my life) filled with songs and music about seagulls, flying and oceans crashing into sandy shores. None of these elements were mysteries however – I lived in a coastal town lined with beaches of varying temperament and heavily populated by those flying rats of the shoreline. It was true though that the seagull celebrated on the album was not the loud squawking and squabbling ill-tempered irritant to be found on sand dunes and in picnic areas, but the lone and silent white span of wings swimming through the air currents far above. I was ironically closer to the novel than I could have realised.

I also discovered – once the confusion over who had actually recorded the album was cleared up – that this was not atypical music for Him of the Crunchy Granola. Explorations into his signature sounds left me wanting and disinterested: this album is lightning in a bottle, a one-off. It is largely orchestral in form, combined with Diamond’s vocals, acoustic guitars, the occasional choral medley and the sounds of the sea.

“The seagull celebrated on the album was not the loud squawking and squabbling ill-tempered irritant to be found on sand dunes and in picnic areas, but the lone and silent white span of wings swimming through the air currents far above.”

The hero of the tale, lost on a painted sky and heading for the farthest shore of the imagination.

Presented in story order, the music feels very much like a journey, beginning with the soft and rhythmic brass and percussion of ‘Prologue’, introducing what will quickly become the signature fanfare of the album. Those same iconic motifs continue in ‘Be’, wherein the listener meets Jonathan for the first time, “lost on a painted sky” discovering freedom away from the flock and the joys of flight. It’s a lovely tune, combining assured acoustic guitar with sweeping orchestral accompaniment and haunting strings. Religious undertones occasionally bubble to the surface on the album – references to ‘God’, a ‘Dear Father’, ‘gloria’ and ‘holy’, and Jonathan’s voyage of discovery could be described as a ‘religious’ experience. The instrumental ‘Flight Of The Gull’ follows, in which our hero tests the very limits of his skills, flying higher than ever before, only to meet with disaster. Here, the orchestra captures the journey perfectly with refrains rising as if into the very sky on gusts of wind, before leveling out and soaring above the clouds. Determined percussion echoes Jonathan’s efforts to push himself ever-further while buoyant woodwind tells of his sheer enjoyment – one that cannot last.

Quiet, unassuming piano opens the song ‘Dear Father’, finding Jonathan licking his wounds and in search of answers. “Who are we to need?” he implores, for the first time forced to temper desire with understanding. Diamond’s distinctive tones capture the lead character’s longing, echoed by a frustrated orchestral interlude and finally heartfelt string rendition of the main theme. Recovered, Jonathan shows off his newly-discovered flying prowess to the flock in the upbeat acoustic guitar, bass, percussion and strings ensemble of ‘Skybird’. The elders are singularly unimpressed however and banish him from the community. Alone and adrift in a ‘Lonely Looking Sky’, Jonathan ponders his fate. The mellow and melodic song is the musical equivalent of abandonment, fading to an uncertain future.

Hall Bartlett: ambitious visionary or literal-minded extremist? You be the judge.

‘The Odyssey’ marks the turning point of both album and story, in which Jonathan begins his journey to higher planes of being. An instrumental medley of the main fanfare, ‘Be’, ‘Lonely Looking Sky’ and ‘Dear Father’, consolidates the story so far. The highlight is the instrumental of ‘Lonely Looking Sky’, proving it is just as powerful with strings in place of vocals, and a very beautiful tune, although similar treatment of ‘Dear Father’ is also very powerful. There is also an excellent haunting harp section speaking of new worlds, nicely reproduced by warmer strings a short while later, only to end in ominous brass discord.

“Transcend, purify, glorious.”

Lilting violins seem to bid welcome in ‘Anthem’, coming as close as they ever will to the voice comma, before Diamond slowly intones the processes underlying Jonathan’s moment of transition. An angelic chorus set to a cheerful harpsichord melody applauds this most holy transformation before the tune reverts to its lilting origins. Then follows a short instrumental reprise of ‘Be’, with piano and clarinet reaffirming the hero’s discovery of the self. Enlightened, Jonathan returns to the flock to pass his knowledge on to others. A soaring vocal version of ‘Skybird’ describes the lesson. “Rally each heart at the sight of your silver wings!” implores the teacher as he urges his pupils to take to the skies and follow their own unique path. A short and sombre instrumental reworking of ‘Dear Father’ tells of the flock elders’ anger at his ‘dangerous’ influence, however the acolytes are convinced and in the finale, a reprise of ‘Be’, Jonathan hands over teaching duties to rising pupil Fletcher Lynd Seagull and sets off, for “on a distant shore”, there will be other outcasts searching for the truth. Where ‘Be’ was originally a livelier, upbeat song, here, it is slower, the beats more dramatic, indicative of conclusion.

Years later, I would finally see Hall Bartlett’s live-action extravaganza, in which real seagulls were utilised, forcing the post-production to work very hard at convincing the viewer that their actions were in any way related to the narrative, mainly through the work of voice acting. Meanwhile, white, seagull-shaped radio-controlled gliders were employed for the flight scenes, to varying levels of success. So underwhelmingly bad was the experience that it completely failed to tarnish my enjoyment of the score and I would urge the curious to investigate the novel instead. Familiarity with the story has forever altered my perception of the music and lyrics however, by mapping the music to particular scenery – at least until I managed to forget most of it. The production values of the album do seem somewhat dated today, and the music doesn’t seem as grandiose as it did when I was younger, and indeed seems a lot more heavy-handed and sentimental. We all have music from our childhood that we hear differently to those who discover it when they’re older and whom will probably struggle to understand what all the fuss is about. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is most definitely a prime example of this for me and probably always will be. Favourable conversion to the rest of Neil Diamond’s discography however still seems unlikely.

*****

Under The Mountain

(2009) Music by Victoria Kelly

Another film based on a famous novel, Under The Mountain tells the story of Rachel and Theo, red-headed twins who discover they are all that stands between the human race and the evil Wilberforces, shape-changing aliens determined to take over the planet for their own malicious ends. Both the story, and its author Maurice Gee are probably New Zealand’s most famous contributions to the country’s rich oeuvre of fiction. It was one of my all-time favourite novels as a child, the 1982 television adaptation long the definitive screen realisation. 2009 saw it dramatised on the big screen for the first time by film director Jonathan King, unsurprisingly improving upon the production values of its predecessor, but significantly dumbing down the text and introducing emo-driven characterisation neither present in the original nor remotely necessary.

Scoring duties meanwhile were assigned to locally-born composer Victoria Kelly, who manages to produce a soundtrack that fits the intentions of the film perfectly. Kelly’s ominously dramatic chords, screeching strings and unsettling woodwind recreate the suspenseful atmosphere of the sci-fi/horror tale extremely well without ever standing out where they shouldn’t or failing to underpin the right emotion. It is essentially a soundtrack that does its job extremely well and listened to in isolation is a sequence of nicely suspenseful mood pieces. ‘Nowhere To Run’, one of the tracks on the album, neatly encapsulates Kelly’s style, uneasy mystery, staccato percussion for moments of high drama and ‘distressed’ string discord for creeping horror. Thumping percussion and hyperventilating strings are another trademark, heard for example in ‘The History Of The World’ and throughout. The angry drum beats perfectly capture the onscreen terror, sounding at times like someone (or something) hammering at a door, demanding to gain entry, while high-pitched strings imitating the sound of knives sharpening complete the fear factor – the track ‘One Will Be Enough’ being a good example of this. The composer demonstrates a natural sympathy for the requirements of the script and it’s only a shame that this self-same script doesn’t live up to her abilities.

“The composer demonstrates a natural sympathy for the requirements of the script and it’s only a shame that this self-same script doesn’t live up to her abilities.”

Fortunately, subsequent viewing of the film did not ruin my enjoyment of Kelly’s work, and it remains a great selection of tense, atmospheric music that can be enjoyed independent of the drivel it was created for. The 1982 TV miniseries is still the definitive version. Better yet, listen to it while reading Maurice Gee’s novel. Were it not for my love of the original text, I might not have bothered to acquire the score, and I recommend the film only as I would recommend pneumonia. Recommending its composer however, couldn’t be easier.

*****

Next Time

Little Tall Island is a quiet community of good, God-fearing folk where nothing ever happens. Sure, there was that whole business with Dolores Claiborne up on the hill a few years back, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Peace reigns until one day a stranger arrives and turns the community upside-down, forcing them to face the dark truth of their so-called Middle American lives and the secrets they all harbour just beneath the surface. The newcomer wants something from them before he’ll go away and leave them to their social fiction. However, to stay alive, the islanders may have to sell their souls. World On Film continues its break from the prime directive next week with a review of Stephen King’s 1999 epic, Storm Of The Century. Click below to see a trailer:

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