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Review: Too much spin in Casablanca Records story ‘Spinning Gold’

A man and a woman sing at a piano in the movie "Spinning Gold."
Gladys Knight (portrayed by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ledisi) and Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart (Jeremy Jordan) play around with what will become the signature version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” in the Bogart biopic “Spinning Gold.”
(Spinning Gold Movie)
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Aficionados of ’70s pop will fondly remember Casablanca Records as the home of KISS, Donna Summer, Parliament and more. Unfortunately, the biopic about its founder intentionally remembers him too fondly, hitting more wrong notes than right ones.

Spinning Gold” traces the story of gamblin’ dreamer and “record man” Neil Bogart (Jeremy Jordan), the singer-turned-music executive who audaciously launched the independent label, betting heavily on himself. The bet eventually paid off, providing parts of the soundtrack of the ’70s: KISS’ ”Rock and Roll All Nite”; the Village People’s “YMCA”; whole seasons of Summer hits. The soundtrack of the film is buoyed by those and non-Casablanca classics to which the movie claims a significant Bogart connection (such as Bill Withers’Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me”; The Isley Brothers’ ”It’s Your Thing”).

Then there’s the rest of the movie.

It’s a labor of love, written and directed by Bogart’s son Timothy Scott Bogart (with other Bogart sons involved) about a flamboyant behind-the-scenes figure who went through many guises before finally hitting it big. The worshipful film commits just about every sin in the Big Book of Biopics. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Dreamer bucks convention, struggles, success leads to excess and drugs, marriage falls apart, etc., etc.

It plays as a “Greatest Hits” of Neil Bogart’s life rather than a cohesive album — there’s no narrative drive. Blatantly expository dialogue spells out what everyone’s thinking and what’s at stake. “You do know no one’s ever done this before,” says the Friend. “Because no one ever tried before,” responds the Dreamer. Yet key components go unexplained (most viewers will have no idea what “the Carson album” is) and key characters just disappear, poof.

The talented singers playing eventual superstars shine. Wiz Khalifa lights it up as George Clinton. Jason Derulo is charismatic as Ron Isley, as is Casey Likes as Gene Simmons. Tayla Parx is easy to root for as Summer. Among the veteran actors, Jason Isaacs, as Neil’s hustling dad, is good in everything.

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But whenever the focus isn’t on those smaller roles, the film deflates. Falling from the top of the cliché tree and hitting every branch on the way down doesn’t help, especially with its all-too familiar declaration that “Every single bit of it was true; even the parts that weren’t.” Giving itself that license to simply make stuff up doesn’t assuage the movie’s rewriting music history to make Bogart central to classics such as “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Love to Love You Baby” and “Beth,” when the real stories behind those songs have long been out there, told by the artists and writers themselves. Heck, the film even credits Bogart with the creation of the “YMCA” dance (he did not create that dance).

The bizarre embellishments, too-familiar storytelling and lack of character development leave viewers unmoored (there’s zero chemistry between Jordan and and the actors playing Bogart’s paramours; we know someone is Neil’s “best friend” only because we’re told). The filmmaking lacks the style to pull off its willful blending of fact and fantasy.

At least there are the songs to enjoy.

‘Spinning Gold’

Rated: R, for pervasive language, drug use, some sexual material and nudity
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: In general release March 31

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