When I was a kid, my dad ran a radio station. Every Friday night, he would bring home all the new “singles” that came in that week. We’d sit in front of his stereo system in the basement, listening to them and deciding what we liked. It was always a special thrill for me when I saw the Casablanca Records label on one of them. They had the coolest roster of artists: Donna Summer, Village People, KISS, Gladys Knight, Irene Cara, and more. Spinning Gold tells the story of how the label came into being. It’s a tale packed with ups and downs. So many, in fact, that it might have made for a better series than a feature film.
Jeremy Jordan stars as Neil Bogart, the smooth-talking record company guy who starts the independent Casablanca Records with financing he gets from Warner Bros. Records. He signs a rock and roll band whose members all wear face-paint and call themselves KISS. Despite popularity in concert, they fail in the sales department. Bogart also nurtures a soul singer named LaDonna Gaines (Tayla Parx) who similarly goes nowhere. Casablanca loses money hand over fist, although Bogart finds a little success with Bill Withers (Pink Sweats) and Parliament, led by the eccentric George Clinton (Wiz Khalifa).
Pushing ahead when all seems lost – and at times engaging in shady business practices - his fortunes turn around substantially when he gives Gaines a total image makeover and changes her name to Donna Summer, then figures out how to market KISS in a way that’s irresistible to kids and teenagers. Suddenly, Casablanca is the hottest label in the biz. In between his professional wheeling and dealing, Bogart gets married to Beth (Michelle Monaghan), starts an affair with KISS co-manager Joyce Biawitz (Lyndsy Fonseca), and does a ton of drugs.
Spinning Gold runs 137 minutes and crams in a whole lot of backstage tales. Many of them are undeniably entertaining. Seeing Donna Summer lying on the studio floor and essentially faking an orgasm to record “Love to Love You Baby” is a real hoot. (Bogart thought the seductive tune needed to be long enough for listeners to have sex to.) So is watching Gladys Knight (Ledisi) protesting the song title “Midnight Plane to Huston” and suggesting a better one would be “Midnight Train to Georgia.” That running time zips right by because something juicy is perpetually happening. Casting real-life singers as Casablanca’s artists was an excellent idea. It gives the film more authenticity, while also allowing for a banging soundtrack.
If too much can be a bad thing, though, that’s somewhat the case here. Spinning Gold tries to depict so much of Bogart’s journey that it ends up fudging things or rushing through them. Case in point for the former: the movie infers the KISS song “Beth” was named after Bogart’s wife in an effort to ridicule him when, in reality, Gene Simmons and Peter Criss’s wife both claim to have come up with the name, for reasons that have nothing to do with the executive. Case in point for the latter: It’s stated that Bogart entirely fabricated Summer’s image, turning a quiet, religious woman into a sultry diva. A fascinating detail, for sure, yet we get almost nothing reflecting her feelings on this invention. A pointless subplot about Bogart’s father (Jason Isaacs) could have been dropped in favor of developing the artists as three-dimensional characters rather than just trading on their iconic status.
Spinning Gold was written and directed by Timothy Scott Bogart. The last name is no coincidence. He’s Neil Bogart’s son. Was he the best choice? It’s debatable. He certainly knew his father and therefore was able to guide Jeremy Jordan in giving a presumably realistic portrayal. But he also doesn’t necessarily have the emotional distance that might have made the movie work better. Time that needed to be devoted to Casablanca’s acts is instead spent finding amusement in his father’s personal antics. Overall, the film needed a tighter balance to achieve the dynamic impact it clearly aims for.
At the end of the day, Spinning Gold offers a modicum of Wikipedia entry fun, without ever becoming truly revelatory about the impact Casablanca Records had on the music industry.
out of four
Spinning Gold is rated R for pervasive language, drug use, some sexuality, and nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.