Musical Biopic Spinning Gold a Stereophonic Disaster
I try to refrain from being hyperbolic when I don’t care for a motion picture, but there were moments during the restless musical biopic Spinning Gold when I felt like it was attempting to physically assault me. This hagiographic mess is a blizzard of bewildering visuals, nonsensical editing choices, and threadbare characterizations that make caring about anyone in the story next to impossible. I loathed the majority of it, and it’s the first film in ages where I wanted to flee the theater in hopes of maintaining my sanity.
What makes it worse is that there are moments that work, brief scenes of emotional insight and dramatic inspiration that hint at the story’s potential. More importantly, the music is undeniably awesome. It is all from the songbooks of a cavalcade of iconic superstars: Donna Summer, KISS, the Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight, Bill Withers… The list goes on and on. Even though it has all been rerecorded by the actors portraying those characters, these songs still speak for themselves, so as bad as this film is, it will likely still boast one of the best soundtracks of 2023.
But these plusses frustratingly only augmented my disgust. While writer-director Timothy Scott Bogart undeniably intends the feature to be a cinematic love letter to his father, Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart, what he and his siblings have delivered is a pummeling explosion of musical theatre exaggeration that goes out of its way to thump an audience into submission. It’s an endurance test, one that no amount of epically phenomenal music from the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s can make worthwhile.
The crux of the story takes place between 1967 and 1977 and follows Bogart, played by Tony-nominated Jeremy Jordan, as he continually reinvents himself while leading a core group of friends on a raucous journey filled with highs and lows. He bets big on the likes of KISS, Donna Summer (Tayla Parx), Giorgio Moroder (Sebastian Maniscalco), and Parliament, only to initially come up snake eyes across the board. But he sticks with all of them, come what may, and this results in Casablanca becoming the most successful independent record company of all time.
What’s the problem? There are more than I can count, but the major two involve the filmmaking and the script, the latter being the more problematic. You have a plethora of characters who are vital to making Bogart and Casablanca the toasts of Los Angeles, but if you asked me to remember anything about the lot of them that didn’t involve stereotype or caricature, with rare exception, I could not do it. The talented ensemble includes Michelle Monaghan, Jason Isaacs, Peyton List, Lyndsy Fonseca, Vincent Pastore, Dan Fogler, Michael Ian Black, and Jay Pharoah — and not one of them registers for more than a millisecond.
Monaghan, as Bogart’s first wife, Beth Weiss, is particularly left out to dry, stranded in a throwaway, thankless role that does her no favors. It’s a testament to her skill that she makes it through unscathed, still emerging as the supremely versatile and underrated talent that she is. But Monaghan can only do so much with so egregiously little, and many of the moments between her and Jordan reek of second-rate soap opera platitudes that are so misogynistically banal, they’re almost offensive.
As for the actual filmmaking, I don’t know where to begin. It’s as if the director and all his creative partners sat down and watched Goodfellas, Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, tick, tick…BOOM!, a few Baz Luhrmann films, and All That Jazz and learned all the wrong lessons. The narration is obtrusive and hackneyed. The camera swirls, whirls, and goes this with and that, but with no poetry and even less intent or meaning. The editing is crazily haphazard because it can be, not because there is a purpose behind the cuts or in how the scenes are assembled to achieve an emotional goal. It’s chaos for the sake of chaos, and because of that, everything led to my developing a massive headache.
In fairness, one thing the filmmakers do get right is in the casting of all the legendary musicians. Newcomer Parx steals every scene she’s in as Summer. Jason Derulo, Wiz Khalifa, Casey Likes, and Sam Nelson Harris all slay as, respectively, Ronald Isley, George Clinton, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley. Best of all is Ledisi as Gladys Knight, her scenes fleshing out and then performing “Midnight Train to Georgia” deservedly bringing down the house.
Yet none of this is enough. Spinning Gold is a disaster. While I fully believe Neil Bogart’s story is as fantastic — and as fantastical — as this film desperately tries to convince the viewer it is, that doesn’t make this monstrosity feel less forced, unpolished, and most of all false. The whole thing is a stereophonic onslaught of sound and fury that annoyingly signifies nothing, and no matter how terrific the music was, all I wanted to do was turn the radio dial and listen to something — anything — else.
Film Rating: 1 (out of 4)