Suffering from many of the same issues as Kasi Lemmons’ Witney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Spinning Gold contains too rich of a life for its 137-minute runtime. The brilliance of both Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Todd Haynes’ fictional glam rock epic Velvet Goldmine is that they understood there’s only so much you can bite off, starting with the official record and working with those in closest proximity to their subject.
Directed by Timothy Scott Bogart––son of its subject, Neil Bogart––and told from the first-person perspective of the record executive (played by Jeremy Jordan), Spinning Gold takes the colorful story of an entrepreneur who died at age 39 and races through several highlights. These include discovering and packaging Kiss, figuring out that Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” needed to be 17 minutes long so people can make love to it, and working with the Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight, and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. His Casablanca Records was a showcase for artists he believed in, working across multiple popular ’70s genres. It’s a shame Bogart’s family, who served as producers, insisted on making an epic with obvious restrictions rather than commissioning a top-notch documentary filmmaker to tell this story.
To that end, as a film with some obvious low-budget limitations, Spinning Gold occasionally veers to bizarre territory (e.g. an overloaded score by Evan Bogart and Justin Grey that hits us on the head at every emotional beat). Proceedings have the gloss of a made-for-TV movie, avoiding becoming a story strictly about one musical act or another. The thing is: there’s enough interesting material here for a miniseries about the adventures of Bogart and the icons he worked with; one could see how the third act might have made for a compelling feature film on its own as Casablanca finds its groove and makes megastars out of Donna Summer (Tayla Parx) or Kiss.
A Brooklyn-born hustler, Bogart held several careers––singer, model, softcore porn actor, marketing director for MGM records––before heading to LA with wife Beth (Michelle Monaghan) and forming his own outfit, Casablanca Records, with confidants Cecil Holmes (Jay Pharoah), cousin Larry (James Wolk), Bruce (Dan Fogler) the promo man and also the muscle when needed, and Joyce (Lyndsy Fonseca), the label’s “secret weapon” and someone whom we’re told we’ll hear more about.
What follows is a fairly straightforward biopic, scenes speeding to the next plot point or station in Bogart’s life with a main focus on his time leading Casablanca and figuring out how to package the talent he’s signed. For much of the label’s life it’s deep in the red––something Bogart knows about, witnessing as a kid his dad Al (Jason Issacs) getting shaken down by loan sharks in the neighborhood. For liquidity, Neil turns to none other than gangster Big Joey (Vincent Pastore) and finds himself in a similar position years later.
The bets pay off once the label figures out how to position Donna Summer, then a single mother performing in lounges in Germany, and Kiss, who release a live album that captures the raw energy of an arena show which a studio album simply cannot. To some extent, it is fun watching well-known artists like Jason Derulo and Wiz Khalifa cosplay Ronald Isley and George Clinton, respectively, and I genuinely wish the creatives had opted for a miniseries. It’s rare to give a negative review to a film that isn’t insufferable, but rather which feels like a cheesy trailer for something that, with the right budget and scope, might have been a terrific tribute to a fascinating underdog.
Undoubtedly a labor of love for Timothy Scott Bogart and family, Spinning Gold has been in development for decades, even at one point circled by Spike Lee and Justin Timberlake. The final result suggests a project that had to cut corners along the way rather than take time to develop characters. Still, there is something occasionally fun in watching a film with questionable choices bookended by over-the-top musical numbers. It’s not hard to imagine a spirited programmer getting a crowd excited for it at some point in the future.
Spinning Gold is now in wide release.