Spinning Tales About Spinning Gold
Twenty-four years ago, while listening to Gene Simmon’s commentary track on the Detroit Rock City DVD release (1999), I was taken aback by something Gene said in the last few minutes of his colorful and entertaining narration. As the end credits rolled to a finish, Simmons shared that he and Timothy Bogart, son of Casablanca Records chief Neil Bogart, were gearing up to produce a film about Neil’s life and the true story of how Casablanca Records came to be. I was immediately hooked. A movie about Casablanca Records and Neil Bogart? Count me in. Not only was I a fan of Kiss, but I had always been enthralled with how Casablanca Records burst upon the scene and dominated the disco, funk, and rock record charts, seemingly all at the same time. I told myself then that THIS film was something I would pay to see!
Today, I did just that. Spinning Gold is currently in a 45-day limited release before it heads to VOD and whatever streaming platform(s) decide to pay for it. After watching the film today, I thought it could have been better released on a streaming platform, and not a 2-hour and 17-minute film, but a four to eight-episode mini-series. This goes against everything I adhere to regarding some of these bloated, over-packed, limited series that the streaming giants love to ballyhoo. In the case of Spinning Gold, the story and overall concept would have benefitted from this format. Just my opinion, and since I am not the head of any of the streaming giants (or steaming giants), my opinion means little. Still, I have some skin in this game and will get to that in a minute.
Spinning Gold results from Timothy Scott Bogart’s two-decade struggle to get his father’s story on the big screen. In 1999, Gene Simmons, among other notables, was an Executive Producer attached to the project and deeply involved in seeing the film get a green light. Simmons was perhaps lining up his following producing credit should Detroit Rock City be a box office success. Maybe that success could have been leveraged New Line Cinema to take the chance, fully fund the picture, and push it out. That was not to be. As things happen in this business of show, the big names at the top often change or disappear altogether the longer it takes the movie to get off the ground.
Detroit Rock City didn’t rock many theaters nationwide at the time. It was released in August 1999 and appeared four months later on DVD. It failed to capitalize on the extensive Kiss reunion tour with all four original members happening during that time. Still, it has become a bonafide cult classic since, and rightly so. It is still an entertaining film that continues to be discovered.
The longer a movie sits in development hell, the odds of it resembling anything remotely close to its original screenplay or story layout are next to impossible. Spinning Gold spent two decades in that limbo and would have never seen the light of day at all if not for the persistence of Tim Bogart and his desire to get the story out. Ten years ago, Justin Timberlake was signed to star as Neil Bogart in Spinning Gold. Again, the longer a movie sits in development hell.
Spinning Gold tells the story of Neil Bogart. He is inventing himself and re-inventing himself for what seems to be his entire life. He is sure that he will be successful in some form of entertainment. After a brief stint as a one-hit wonder, working his way up the promotions ladder at various record companies, he throws caution (and money) to the wind by starting his own record company. Neil’s story could be mirrored in hundreds of other stories that involve the recording industry. Still, in the case of Neil’s Casablanca Records, we have memorable artists such as Donna Summer, The Village People, Kiss, George Clinton, and Lipps, Inc. (come on, who doesn’t love Funkytown!), all direct results of the maniacal spending and off-the-wall decisions of Bogart.
The movie weaves in-and-out only the most minuscule stories behind the artists and bands that Neil Bogart signed to Casablanca. Because it is just a movie and not a limited or mini-series, there are a metric ton of side stories behind the success and failures of Casablanca Records that should have been told because they represent a more accurate overall portrait of the company and its impresario. Kiss and Donna Summer are huge story elements in Spinning Gold, as well as they should be, but there is more under the surface that is never mined, and this will be something that sticks in the craw of fans of those artists and fans of Casablanca Records in general. Without reading all of the reviews out there just in the last five days, I am sure those who grew up buying the records and digging the music that Casablanca put out will have some complaints about how their faves are portrayed or covered in Spinning Gold. Then again, the rock and disco fans of Casablanca Records most likely never knew about the behind-the-scenes insanity that was Casablanca. Odds are, if they had, it would have made no difference anyway.
But the movie is about Neil Bogart. This, the viewer needs to keep in mind, and because the general public doesn’t know the name Neil Bogart, Spinning Gold sheds quite a wide beam of light on the man himself and, by doing so, should prompt anyone interested to learn more about him to do their research.
The movie does not cover Neil Bogart as accurately as one would hope. This is not a re-writing of history by the director; in fact, several monologue moments during the film delivered by Jeremy Jordan, brilliantly as Bogart, tell you as much. The limits of a theatrical movie dictate what can be covered and what cannot. To director Timothy Bogart’s credit, he does not shy away from his father’s cocaine abuse. Does he have time to show us how much cocaine affected every decision Neil Bogart made? No. Then again, not even a ten-hour documentary film on Neil Bogart could do that.
The stand out in this film is Jeremy Jordan, as Neil Bogart. Jordan is never over-the-top in his portrayal. With so many old interviews and promo pieces featuring the actual Neil Bogart available on YouTube, the viewer can be the judge. Jeremy Jordan captures the frenetic energy of Neil Bogart in a subtle but powerful way. Jordan is the strongest player in this picture. I say that with some weary because I hoped there would be other standouts. Despite a well-read cast that performs perfunctory, the only other performance worth mentioning is Jason Derulo as Ronald Isley. Derulo pops off the screen and grabs you by the short hairs. Jason Derulo has been stuck with lackluster vehicles such as The Town (2010), Goosebumps (2015), and, ugh, Cats (2019.) In Spinning Gold, Derulo grabs his scenes and works them with such finesse that it is a f***ing crime that this actor has not been given more significant, and meatier roles to dig into. Worst-case scenario, sign Jason Derulo to an Isley Brothers biopic!
So, let me get back to my skin in this game. As I said at the start of this review, I am a Casablanca Records/Neil Bogart fan: a Kiss fan and a huge research nerd in the music business of the 1970s. I’ve been fascinated with all this since I was old enough to read. This brings me to Larry Harris. Larry Harris was the co-founder and Executive Vice-President of Casablanca Records.
In 2009, Larry Harris released his book And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records. Harris did a promotional tour for the book in the Fall of that year, which brought him to my neck of the woods, Chicago, Illinois. I caught Larry on Channel 7, the ABC station here, where he was briefly questioned about his book. It was a 4-minute interview promoting his book signing later that day. I had the same feeling that I had in my gut ten years earlier when I heard Gene Simmon’s commentary track comments about a Neil Bogart movie. This time though, I took immediate action. I found the book’s web page online and immediately asked for an interview.
Full disclosure. In Spinning Gold, Larry Harris is portrayed by actor James Wolk. Wolk did a fantastic job on Mad Men as Bob Benson during the 2013 season, but he is given next-to-no time as Larry Harris in the movie. He is present here and there, but the film makes no great effort to let you know his impact on Casablanca Records. Again, one could attribute this to the time allowed for back/side stories. Just the same, Larry Harris was just as important to Casablanca Records as Neil Bogart.
Back in 2009, I was midway through my decade run as an internet radio show host/programmer, and Larry Harris replied within a few hours and agreed to record an interview for my show. I told Harris my show was called Drive-In of the Damned, and it didn’t phase him a bit. Usually, I would have to over-explain my show and radio station to put the interview subject at ease. Larry Harris replied…” Damned” sounds about right for me.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I talked and recorded an interview with Larry Harris. What this intelligent man shared during that interview was eye-opening and mind-blowing. Now, keep this in mind. Larry had stayed in New York for as long as he could when Neil Bogart insisted on moving to California. At some point, around 1976, after Casablanca had blown up, Larry was lured to the West Coast by Neil, and his book reflects most of those recollections. However, I was not prepared for Larry Harris to be so open about his memories. I had received an advance copy of the book before my interview with him, so the questions I had prepared were excellent. The answers he gave me threw me for a loop.
I interviewed Larry Harris for three hours. As an internet radio programmer, and a massive fan of rock-n-roll records, Larry and I connected on many levels. We had such a good time talking to each other that, at one point, Larry told me how much fun this interview was versus others he had done for the book prior. I attribute this to my asking him, in-depth, about the Buddah records days he and Neil had. He shared many insights into their success at Buddah Records and Casablanca. He shared stories in the interview that he had not included in the book because the legal issues were too significant a burden. However, as a live radio show interview, the kid gloves were off.
Once the interview was over, I discovered something awful. With one stroke on the keyboard, I lost the entire interview. I immediately emailed Larry and told him what I thought had happened. Larry Harris immediately replied, “Well, let’s do it again. You already asked me the questions. Now I have better answers.”
Larry and I never did re-connect to reconstruct that interview.
I have only my memories of our three hour interview and some very distinct stories Larry shared with me.
Larry Harris died in 2017.
Spinning Gold, like the story of Neil Bogart, the story of Casablanca Records, and my lost interview with Larry Harris. They all represent a yearning for knowledge for a time and place we so desperately want to bring back if only to attempt to understand how and why these things happened. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, it doesn’t.
Director Timothy Bogart’s Spinning Gold bends the truth just enough to display an above-average version of Neil Bogart and his Casablanca Records. I sincerely wish, at some point, that Tim Bogart puts together a massive doc series about his father. That would be the only way to present Neil Bogart’s vision and intention fully. He was just a human being, just like the rest of us. Sometimes, though, we like to see what guys/gals like us could do when we throw all caution to the wind.
Larry Harris' wildly entertaining book And Party Every Day is still available via Amazon.