It takes money to make money, Titus Maccius Plautus once said.
Wanna bet? Neil Bogart says.
Oh, the music mogul mostly agrees with the Roman playwright. He’d just amend it a bit. To jumpstart Casablanca, his fledgling record company, Neil spends cash like a 5-year-old with a platinum card. Wild parties? Check. Tour buses? Check. A little under-the-counter money to DJs to spin a record a few more times? Triple check.
But Neil doesn’t technically have the cash to do any of this stuff. Instead, he juggles the books. He racks up debt. If he’s really in a pinch, he borrows a bit from the Mafia. (Just a few hundred thousand, give or take.) If Neil was going to edit Plautus’ quote, it might read, It takes pretend money to make money.
And in 1974, the cash coming in might as well be pretend, too.
Casablanca’s first act—a weird, makeup-wearing band called KISS—draws crowds but can’t sell an album. Neil brought George Clinton’s sprawling Parliament-Funkadelic into the Casablanca family, too, but they’re spending more money than they’re making. (Why, Clinton bought himself a fake spaceship with Casablanca bonus money—because, Clinton suggests, he’s too big a star to drive.)
And then there’s LaDonna Adrian Gaines, a Boston-born singer with a big, big voice. As much as Neil believes she can be a superstar, her career has yet to hit orbit. She’s stuck in Germany right now, singing at whatever venue will have her. Even changing her name to Donna Summer hasn’t helped.
No matter: Neil believes in these acts. He believes in Casablanca. And most importantly, he believes in himself. If he can just underwrite just one more cocaine-fueled party; if he can just keep the Mafia from breaking his kneecaps for one more month; if he can just buy George Clinton one more spaceship; success is bound to come.
It takes money to make money, Plautus once said.
But in Neil Bogart’s case, a lot of braggadocio and a little delusional thinking is a pretty good substitute.
Spinning Gold is based on the true story of Casablanca Records—a company that never would’ve existed without its daring young founder. For all the man’s faults (and as we shall see, they are legion), we must give props for his eye for talent and (most importantly) his undying tenacity. Dreams are not easy things to chase, much less catch. But Neil—largely through perseverance and drive—caught his dream when most of us would have long ago taken jobs as telemarketers.
The movie begins in a church, with a young Neil Bogart signing gospel legend Edwin Hawkins and his singers to a contract with Buddah Records (where Neil then worked). The song Neil wanted was the classic “Oh Happy Day,” and we hear the gospel choir sing it as Neil rhythmically plops down stacks of cash. (Hawkins says the money will allow him to do “a lot of God’s work.”)
Later, Neil’s scolded by Buddah/Casablanca publicist Buck Reingold for promoting another song that talks incessantly (he believes) about Jesus and Mary. We hear that Donna Summer started singing in church. Neil suggests that the singer wanted to shatter its stained-glass windows to become a star.
In an apparent dreamlike, post-death sequence, a choir sings “Oh Happy Day” in the same church the movie opens with. A man walks through a set of doors at the back of the church and into a white light.
Neil’s parties were legendary in Los Angeles. One features a woman swimming nude in a pool (though her body’s a bit indistinct due to the play of the water). At another, various couples engage in loads of foreplay (involving much writhing and dancing, with some females revealing their breasts and including some same-sex pairings).
The revelers were, um, encouraged in their activities by a sultry track being played on the turntable—one sung by Donna Summer. Seeing his partygoers’ reaction to the song, Neil flies out to Germany to ask her to record a longer version of it (in part so that people can have sex to it). During the recording, Summer eventually lies down in the recording studio (with Neil’s encouragement) as if she herself was engaged in sex—at one point appearing to consider masturbation.
Neil tells us about the controversy surrounding the 17-minute track (“Love to Love You Baby”), including the fact that a news agency counted 22 simulated orgasms in the song. It was banned by some stations (which Neil says just made the song more popular), and Neil gets one influential DJ to play the full 17-minute version by getting a couple of women to handcuff him in a bathroom. (Essentially, the handcuffing was less sexual and more a way for the DJ to escape responsibility: If he was handcuffed in a bathroom, he wasn’t responsible for what was played on the station by other people.)
Neil woos his wife, Beth, through a bit of sultry dancing. We see the pair kiss and cuddle elsewhere.
But it’s not too long before Neil’s eye wanders to a woman named Joyce. She’s apparently involved with another man, though Joyce later confesses that the man’s gay and they only pretend to be a couple to protect Joyce from aggressive men (just like Neil). We see them kiss and dance sensually, as well, and a couple of scenes depict both of them in a bathtub (though we only see the couple from their shoulders up). While Neil insists that he loved both women passionately, the affair is the biggest (but not only) reason that Neil and Beth eventually divorce.
Women wear bikinis. Men go without shirts. Speaking of which, we see a scene featuring The Village People (another Casablanca act, and one which embraced a number of gay tropes) in costume. We learn that Neil Bogart “acted” in what he describes as a softcore porn movie. We hear what are meant to be humorous allusions to gay sex.
As a child, Neil (then known as Neil Scott Bogatz) watches as his father is beaten by thugs trying to collect gambling debts. (The bloodied-and-bruised dad then takes Neil out for ice cream.) Neil himself is later roughed up by a similar debt-collection agency.
When Neil starts luring artists away from the prominent record label Motown, he and his cohorts are shoved around and threatened by what they characterize as the “Black Mafia.” Neil suggests that had the Italian Mafia not intervened, they’d likely be dead.
Buck (the future Casablanca publicist) pushes down a record-label bureaucrat, and it looks as though the fight is close to getting out of hand. A couple of people grab Neil by his jacket lapels to threaten him. In post-credits documentary footage, we learn that the real Neil Bogart once considered suicide.
We hear about 101 uses of the f-word (scores of which are paired with “mother”) and another 20 of the s-word. We also hear “a–,” “d—n,” “h—,” “c-cks-cker,” “g-dd–n” and “p-ssed.” Jesus’ name is abused four times. We see some obscene hand gestures, including one on the Spinning Gold movie poster. (The offending middle finger is covered by the movie title.)
Cecil, a co-worker of Neil’s, exclaims Jesus’ name when he receives a pleasant surprise—then immediately regrets it. He says he’s never used the Lord’s name in vain before (though that doesn’t stop him from using a host of other naughty words).
When Neil meets with a would-be business partner, he immediately offers the man a marijuana joint. The man at first declines, telling him he’d like to do business first. “This is business,” Neil says.
That, perhaps, suggests how ubiquitous drugs and alcohol are in Neil’s world—and, of course, within the movie. Marijuana is sniffed and smoked openly throughout the Casablanca offices and various recording studios. Cigarettes are equally ubiquitous. Liquor flows freely. Neil insists that the song “One Toke Over the Line”, which talks about Jesus and Mary, is actually about drugs.
Neil himself steers clear of harder drugs until he tries to sign George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Clinton insists that Neil snort some cocaine–which he does. He becomes a regular user after that, and we sometimes see lines of cocaine on counters at home or desks at work. It’s suggested that this drug use caused Neil to make some very poor business decisions, but there’s never an indication that Neil stopped using even when his music empire turned around.
Neil is a gambler—quite literally. We often see him playing games of chance in casinos (particularly Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas). He takes after his father in that way. And when Neil buys a racing horse, he asks his dad if he’d like to go in with him.
Neil’s business practices can be borderline unethical, carrying with them the hint of flim-flam showmanship. He mocks up some empty amplifiers to make it look as though KISS is louder than the band actually is (or, as he’d say, so the look of the band on stage would match their sound). He glues a Donna Summer track to a turntable, forcing a radio station to play the same song all night. And, of course, he engages in “payola,” the practice of paying DJs to play certain records.
Spinning Gold is a decadent, capitalistic fable of sorts—one in which the Hollywood moral of “follow your dreams” melds with sex, drugs, and some exceptionally shady business practices.
Some will find Neil Bogart’s story inspiring. His children certainly did. Despite Neil’s divorce from his first wife, and despite accusations that he was never home enough for his kids, Spinning Gold was made by those selfsame kids: Son Timothy Scott Bogart wrote and directed the film. Another son, Grammy-winner Evan Bogart, wrote two original songs for it.
“Kids only know who their parents became,” Timothy Scott told Billboard magazine. “We don’t ever get to know who they were at the start, when they were first starting out on their own dreams. For me, out of necessity, I found myself doing a forensic investigation into both who he was at the start and the honest vulnerability he hid from almost everyone. I always knew he was a dreamer and always understood he had extraordinary perseverance—but the intensity of those dreams and the near-Herculean commitment to that perseverance in the face of a million obstacles and a chorus of ‘no’s,’ that was a revelation to me.”
I’m glad that Bogart’s kids have such affection for their father. And judging by a few real home movies played during the credits, Bogart had real affection for them, too.
And yet, the messages sent by this movie can be downright dispiriting.
We see Neil sink into drug use and hit rock bottom—then spring to the top of the music world without, apparently, ever changing his lifestyle. We see his first wife, Beth, in near-despair because Neil’s millions of dollars in debt—and hear him scold her because she “stopped dreaming again.”
And we see him turn LaDonna Adrian Gaines into what he describes as a totally different person—from the name to the image to the singer’s very hair. (In every picture we see of the disco queen, we’re told, she’s wearing a wig.)
So much for embracing yourself the way God made you. Neil tells LaDonna, a former church singer, that the world will only love you if you remake yourself, top-to-bottom.
Perhaps such messages were unavoidable, given the movie’s era and the characters we’re given. KISS is famed as much for their white-paint personas as their music. The Parliament-Funkadelic embraced crazy costumes and George Clinton’s show-stopping spaceship. Neil Bogart himself went through names like some people go through coffee filters. “It’s not what’s on the inside that counts,” the ‘70s told us. Superficiality sells.
Spinning Gold reminds us that Neil Bogart was behind some indelible music—songs that transcend a time or a place. But the movie is stuck in its own era and mired in the muck of its own content concerns.
Spinning Gold is half right in its title. It indeed spins—spins what should be a cautionary tale into a story of can’t-quit attitude. But the gold here is fool’s gold, and even that is alloyed with clay.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.