The story of Casablanca Records’ founder is too chaotic for anything interesting to rise to the top.
Neil E. Bogart was 39 years old when he died of cancer in 1982. By then, he had a brief career as a B-level pop singer in the early 60s, headed up three record labels, started in a softcore porn film, and proved a crucial player in the late 60s bubblegum pop, disco, and new wave eras of music.
Unfortunately, he also loved drugs, multiple women, and generating the kind of debt that would make even student loan companies blush.
He sounds like a fascinating subject for a biopic. Sadly, Spinning Gold does not deliver on that promise.
A Bombardment of Voiceover
There is a section at the start of Spinning Gold in which Neil’s (Jeremy Jordan) narration becomes so consistently present, it seems to be competing for attention with the film’s actual dialogue. It is jarring and overwhelming. And while Neil’s life was one of barely contained (or not contained at all) chaos, the effect does not appear intentional.
In time, the voiceover does settle some, allowing the film to tell some of its story without such intense assistance. Alas, in its place, Jordan begins to directly address the camera in some purgatory space, making the audience both interviewer and judge. It isn’t an uninteresting idea, but, like so much of Spinning Gold, the execution just isn’t there.
For one, it takes too long to let the audience in on their role in the final judgment of Neil. For another, Jordan doesn’t have the kind of on-screen charisma to own several minutes of the film at a time with what is essentially a one-man show. Having seen him doing live theatre in Connecticut a few times, he definitely can summon that energy on stage. However, on-camera requires a different approach, and his instincts for it aren’t there yet. He does his best work amongst the whirling dervish of his associates, talent, and enemies, but the movie keeps seeking to pull him out of that.
A Cast of Many, Stranded
Spinning Gold is thick with an array of worthy actors, including Chris Redd as radio DJ Frankie Crocker, Jay Pharoah as Cecil Holmes, and personal favorite James Wolk as Neil’s cousin Larry Harris. Each gets a moment to a moment and a half to make an impression before the tidal wave of plot pushes them away. They’re good enough that such brief moments to command the lens only frustrate.
Others like Jason Isaacs as Neil’s gambling-addicted but decent guy dad, Michael Ian Black as famous manager Bill Aucoin, and Vincent Pastore as mobster Big Joey fare slightly better. Let’s say they each get a full two to three moments to make their impression.
Too often, it feels like the movie is scared not to get everyone who worked with Neil in the film. So, at the detriment of the larger story, it stuffs itself with characters until there’s no room for characterization. Perhaps that can be laid at the feet of writer/director Timothy Scott Bogart, who also happens to be Neil’s son. In trying to be as thorough as possible, he forgets to make dramatic choices. As a result, the movie feels ironically thin and inert.
Women and Superstars To the Front
Spinning Gold does best by the women in the cast and the music superstars. Neil’s wife Beth (Michelle Monaghan) is too frequently reduced to the typical true love left behind by ambition, drugs, and temptation, that is true. However, Monaghan refuses to be wallpaper, giving Beth a sweet, flirtatious energy early and smartly documenting how it curdles into a no-nonsense steeliness as her husband drifts away. She’s done wrong, but she never plays the victim.
Joyce Biawitz (Lyndsy Fonseca), his second love, gets a smaller pallet of emotions to pull from, but she makes it work. Fonseca gives her an air of unapologetic ambition. She wants a bigger role in music, so she chases it. She wants to be with Neil, so she embraces the infatuation. Again, it’s a stock character, but the actor gives the role a bit more charge.
Finally, there are the musical stars. On this front, both Bogart and the actors make a canny choice. No one, save perhaps a delightfully spacey Wiz Khalifa as George Clinton, seems to be trying to deliver an impression. Instead, they’re evoking the feel of these legends. As a result, Casey Likes and Sam Nelson Harris don’t look or sound much like young Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, but damned if they don’t nail those two’s nasty edge and penchant for entitlement. Similarly, Jason Derulo couldn’t pass for Ronald Isley in a lineup, but he conveys the man’s chaotic charisma.
Tayla Parx, getting an “Introducing” in the credits, does something else entirely with Donna Summers. I don’t know the singer behind the scenes well enough to know if Parx nails that aspect of her, but her recording of “Love to Love You Baby” is incandescent even as it is part of the creepiest scene in the film.
Good performances in service of a poorly constructed script riddled with music biopic cliches can only do so much. Add in a bland visual style, and Spinning Gold is as ill-advised as Casablanca’s massive Johnny Carson album—a notable flop the movie both talks about too much while never really capturing the disaster of it.
If I’m candid, it frequently doesn’t even feel like a movie; more like something akin to a dramatic reenactment on a Behind the Music-style tv show. Despite unfolding during some of the most musically exciting eras of the 20th Century, the film seems devoid of historical context. As a result, it can’t convince the audience of its significance or the importance of Neil himself.
Someday, someone can tell a hell of a story about the life of Neil Bogart. But that day isn’t today.
Spinning Gold starts climbing the charts in theatres March 31.
Rating: 2/10 SPECS
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.