Friday, March 31, 2023

Spinning Gold, the Casablanca Records story

Every record label that means something to fans has a very distinctive style and sound, like Blue Note, Pacific Jazz, and Stax. That was certainly true of Casablanca Records too. They recorded Buddy Miles and Hugh Masekela, but they are best known for disco. Yet, their biggest, most profitable outlier was KISS, even though they took a while to catch on. Timothy Scott Bogart brings his father Neil’s tenure at the label to the big-screen as an ill-advised movie-musical in Spinning Gold, which opens today in New York.

Neil Bogart died at the premature age of 39, but he still tells his own story in his son’s musical memory play. He was born Neil Bogatz in Brooklyn, but he was eager to leave his modest roots behind. Music became his business, first as a one-hit teen idol and then as an executive for MGM and Buddah records, where he signed Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Isley Brothers, and Bill Withers, all of whom get more screen time in
Spinning Gold than a lot of Casablanca artists, such as the Village People, Cher, and Lipps inc. (Considering the notorious reception for the Village People’s 1980 film, Can’t Stop the Music, maybe we shouldn’t blame T.S. Bogart for not tempting fate in that respect).

Fatefully, when Bogart struck out on his own with Casablanca, his distributor, Warner Music, tried to undercut their sales, so they started handling sales and distribution in-house, at least according to the film. They had three acts that would eventually be huge: KISS, Donna Summer, and George Clinton’s Parliament, but all three struggled with their initial releases.

It will be interesting to hear what KISS thinks of their portrayal in
Spinning Gold. They might either dig it or hate it. It could go either way. Ledisi has a nice number as Knight (“Midnight Train to Georgia,” of course), but the scene of Bogart shouting and gyrating to the sounds of Edwin Hawkins’ choir (another Buddah signing) is pure cringe. At least it is rather amusing to watch Sebastian Maniscalco mumble through his scenes as producer-composer Giorgio Moroder, but Tayla Parx does not bear a strong resemblance to Donna Summer.

In a way,
Spinning Gold is a lot like Cadillac Records, simply replacing Bogart’s relationship with Summer for that of Leonard Chess and Etta James. Bogart and Summer kept it professional, not counting her orgasmic “Love to Love You” session, another embarrassing cringe fest, but he rather openly carried on an affair with Joyce Biawitz, KISS’s co-manager, who seemed to have an office at Casablanca (presumably for the sake of convenience).

Fonseca is fine as Biawitz and Michelle Monaghan plugs away valiantly in the thankless role of Bogart’s thankless wife, Beth Weiss, but Jeremy Jordan (who was very good in Broadway's Bonnie & Clyde) dominates the film, in the worst way possible, preaching to the choir and projecting to the back balcony as Neil Bogart. His performance is exhaustingly showy. [Timothy Scott] Bogart desperately needed to tone him down, but instead, it looks like his direction consisted of texting “100%” emojis.

It does not help that Jordan is often singing his heart out in musical numbers that reach for Busby Berkeley-like extravagance, but look visibly cheap. This production definitely tried to do too much with too little. Plus, the two-and-a-quarter hour running time is just excessive.

Of course, there are some clueless reviewers who are just discovering somebody had to produce all this music they have loved. However, anyone who has spent any time in record stores was already fully aware of Bogart and Casablanca Records. Neither were any great secret. It is nice to know more squares will now appreciate his risk-taking and contributions to the 1970s zeitgeist, but his memory would be better served by a solid documentary than this desperate-to-please misfire. Not recommended,
Spinning Gold opens today (3/31) at the AMC Lincoln Square.