An endearingly scrappy, but resoundingly one sided and fawning biopic love letter from a son to his late father, writer-director Timothy Scott Bogart’s Spinning Gold thinks it’s an underdog, but it gets bogged down in the same cliches as the big dogs. A look back on the career of Bogart’s father – Casablanca Records co-founder Neil Bogart – Spinning Gold plays all the music biopic cliches (and the hits) with the verve and earnestness of a seasoned cover band. It’s a film that’s made with a lot of love and heart, but not much else beyond the obvious.
Jeremy Jordan stars as the elder Bogart, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who fought his way through the record industry, from working thankless PR gigs all the way up to becoming a label executive, and then eventually helping to form Casablanca Records, which was probably the most successful and notable indie outfit between the early 70s and mid-80s. Spinning Gold portrays Bogart as a confident, music and business savvy gambler who took monumental risks and debts that paid off huge… eventually. It took some time. With the help of acts like Donna Summer, KISS, and George Clinton, Bogart’s dreams of being a big shot became a reality. He was a guy who was always hustling and refused to be counted out, even when all the chips were down.
Considering that Spinning Gold is a family affair – with many other members of the Bogart family popping up as various producers of both the film and its soundtrack – it would be wrong to expect something hard hitting. Sure, Spinning Gold touches upon Bogart’s love for two women important in his life (Michelle Monaghan as his wife, Beth, and Lyndsy Fonseca as Joyce, one of KISS’ managers), his reckless disregard for the livelihood of those under his employ when it came to making deals, his drug abuse, and the strained relationship he had with his own father (Jason Isaacs). But on the whole, Spinning Gold tries to keep the good times going. Quite tellingly, there’s only a little bit in here about Bogart’s qualities as a dad outside of a corny, but cute enough scene where he dances with one of his young daughters in a banquet hall while sprinklers are going off around them.
Spinning Gold even goes as far as letting Neil Bogart tell his own story via the time honoured trope of a biographical subject relaying their memories in direct address to the camera. At least Timothy Scott Bogart is very quick to mention in his script that a lot of the facts in this true story are up for debate and that others might view Neil in a different light. It’s a nice touch for a filmmaker to admit that their biography could never hope to contain the whole truth of someone known for stretching the facts to their advantage and bluffing their way to victory, and it helps to make the hagiography going on all the easier to take.
Similarly, Spinning Gold has too much going on to fit within a two-and-a-quarter hour movie. In addition to showing Neil Bogart’s business acumen, the film wants to showcase the music he brought to the world. A cavalcade of guest stars and fresh faces alike pop up to play some of the chart topping acts that passed through Neil’s orbit, which is a double-edged sword once one realizes that most of the artists being mentioned would be better fodder for such a biopic treatment than Bogart. Tayla Parx makes a great impression as Donna Summer. Jason Derulo does a nice job as Ronald Isley. Wiz Khalifa is fun in a brief bit as a spaceship demanding George Clinton. Casey Likes and Sam Nelson Harris put in some good work as Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, respectively.
And unlike some low budget films about major players in the music industry (Stardust, I’m looking directly at you), Spinning Gold actually plays the hits while showing how they came to be. They’re fair-to-decent covers of the classics, but at least the tracks are there and the performers came to play, especially Parx and Derulo. But that low budget also undercuts the excess that Bogart has built his life upon. The scope of Spinning Gold always seems thin and cheap; not a reflection of a person who seemed to spare no expense in a bid to garner attention. Timothy Scott Bogart’s direction is fine, but his attempts to compensate for the film’s low budget by going back to the same tricks and visual cues repeatedly (a repeated gag involving flash paper, people blowing cigarette smoke to look cool, lens flares aplenty) aren’t fooling anyone.
Younger Bogart’s script also follows a boilerplate biopic and business movie template that’s as familiar as it is choppily paced here. The goal is to almost always depict Neil Bogart as a cool customer who rarely cracks, and even the film’s few moments of genuine vulnerability come in the form of one-on-one heart-to-heart chats with loved ones that are played as safely as possible. The anecdotes are certainly interesting, and thankfully Spinning Gold never feels like a straight-up reading of someone’s oral history, but the on-the-nose expository dialogue and forced moments of reductive, audience friendly dramatics starts to grow tiresome before the film has even reached the halfway point and long prior to the seemingly protracted and rushed All That Jazz styled ending.
Jordan proves to be an odd choice of lead. He can sing, dance and looks a little like Neil Bogart, but he doesn’t have tons of star power of charisma. Maybe if Spinning Gold was a lot more like a jukebox musical than a biopic, the casting would’ve worked better. He’s certainly trying his best, but playing anything outside the obvious appears to be beyond his capabilities. It’s kind of obvious that his primary background is in musical theatre, because Jordan’s work always seems more suited for the stage, where one can get away with over emoting a bit to those in the back of the balconies. But on the other hand, Jordan is playing someone who was always in the background of other famous people’s lives, so the casting makes sense on the most basic of levels.
But in spite of the many obvious shortcomings, I was always struck by the overall spirit of Spinning Gold, a film that wouldn’t have existed unless the people making it absolutely wanted to tell this story and had a deep love for the material. It’s an indie production with major league aspirations, just like Bogart’s record label. That sensation of watching people put on a show they believe in carries Spinning Gold a lot further than some of its similarly minded contemporaries, and unlike other music industry films from recent memory – from megahits like Bohemian Rhapsody to almost forgotten footnotes like CBGB – there isn’t a hint of cynicism to be found here. The spirit is willing, even if the budget and script aren’t up to scratch. If nothing else, Timothy Scott Bogart’s father would be proud.
Spinning Gold opens in select theatres starting Friday, March 31, 2023.
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