What do Donna Summer, Parliament, Gladys Knight, The Isley Brothers, The Village People, and Bill Withers all have in common with the rock band KISS? They all rose to their musical heights under the watchful ear of the music industry's most colourful and brilliant music executive, Neil Bogart, founder of Casablanca Records, the most successful independent record company of all time. Along with a ragtag team of young music lovers, Neil and Casablanca Records would rewrite history and change the music industry forever. Their mix of creative insanity, a total belief in each other, and the music they were creating, shaped our culture and ultimately defined a generation.
What do Donna Summer, Parliament, Gladys Knight, The Isley Brothers, The Village People, and Bill Withers all have in common with the rock band KISS? They all rose to their musical heights under the watchful ear of the music industry's most colorful and brilliant music executive, Neil Bogart, founder of Casablanca Records, the most successful independent record company of all time. Along with a ragtag team of young music lovers, Neil and Casablanca Records would rewrite history and change the music industry forever. Their mix of creative insanity, a total belief in each other, and the music they were creating, shaped our culture and ultimately defined a generation.
“Neil Bogart was my father, and this movie is my love letter to him and to the musical artists he helped introduce to the world,” says writer-director Timothy Scott Bogart. “He was born Neil Bogatz in poverty in the Brooklyn projects, where he plotted his dreams and schemes to make his mark on the world. It’s taken me over twenty years, but I finally get to tell the impossible story of how he broke free from those humble beginnings to go on to define the music of a generation, ultimately becoming the visionary at the helm of legendary Casablanca Records.”
“Spinning Gold is the story of an unsung hero,” says Oscar®-nominated producer Laurence Mark. “People haven’t heard of Neil Bogart, and yet he was responsible for defining the soundtrack of a decade. This movie is going to be a lovely revelation for people.”
Bogart says that every single bit of Spinning Gold is true – even the parts that aren’t. “All kids see their dads as larger than life, but my dad really was,” says Bogart. “As the ultimate showman, his gift was in creating the fantasies that everyone around him yearned to be real. Whether that was the fulfillment of their own dreams, or just taking the magic carpet ride that he was the ultimate conductor of, my father’s gift was to be able to make everyone’s dreams come true, and so for me – not just as a son, but as a filmmaker – the question was, how to express that? Did my dad really have Donna Summer stretch out on the floor when she recorded ‘Love to Love You’? Was he actually in the room at the piano with Gladys Knight, re-imagining 'Midnight Plane to Houston' into 'Midnight Train to Georgia'? There’s truth in every single story we’ve told, but whose version of that truth? Well, everyone’s memories are true to them, and that’s the story we set out to tell.”
Narrated by Neil himself as he sips a drink amidst the gold records hanging in his home, the story takes place over the course of one tumultuous decade from 1966 to 1977. Determined to make a name for himself but millions of dollars in debt, Neil turns his love of gambling into a superpower when he takes on artists that the world isn’t ready for, and risks everything to carve out a place for them in the music world.
“Going head-to-head with Motown’s Berry Gordy, my father decided to launch the biggest independent record label in history,” says Bogart. “He just had no idea that the biggest gamble of his life would blow up in his face so spectacularly.”
“Most people believe Kiss must have been an instant hit,” producer Jessica Martins explains. “Most assume Donna Summer’s music simply worked, right off the bat. None of that was true. Kiss was a disaster from the moment they were introduced, and ‘Love To Love You Baby,’ was released and instantly forgotten about. That could have been the end of Casablanca right there.”
“But my father believed in what he believed in completely, and refused to ever accept anything but success,” Bogart says. “When he was absolutely broke, instead of giving up, he borrowed from the mob and literally gambled in Vegas with house chips to make payroll. He just had this extraordinary gift of knowing what the audience wanted, and he saw where the music and culture were headed. He just needed to give himself enough time for the rest of the world to catch up! And the history my father created during that extraordinary period became the soundtrack of our lives.”
To Bogart, this film isn’t just about one person. It’s a love letter to an entire generation of ambitious, passionate artists. “This movie is about so many things,” he says, “but at its heart, it’s about the most important question we all face: what do we challenge ourselves to do with our lives?”
“For this group of dreamers, it’s about a moment in time, once upon a time, where they lived a fairy tale and made those dreams come true.”
For Executive Music Producer Evan Bogart, a GRAMMY award-winning songwriter, music producer and publisher, who has worked with such artists as Beyonce (a collaboration that resulted in the GRAMMY-winning “Halo”), Jennifer Lopez, Jason Derulo, Rihanna, and Lizzo, to name a few, Spinning Gold is a way to see legendary musicians through his father’s eyes. “We wanted that moment of discovery to come across in this film,” he says. “The moment Neil saw that magic in these artists, that lightning in a bottle. My Dad was able to see something in people that they weren’t always able to see in themselves, and then amplify that quality and elevate it.”
Producer Brad Bogart also wanted to tease out the hidden histories of the Casablanca days. “I hear these stories about my father, and everyone has two or three different versions of the story. No one knows quite what really happened. It was the seventies – there was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. That’s what the era was all about.”
To do justice to the artists who saw Neil as family, Tim Bogart brought in some of the hottest musicians of today to play them on screen. In these roles, Bogart cast Grammy and Golden Globe nominee Wiz Khalifa as George Clinton, multi-Grammy Award winner Ledisi as Gladys Knight, Jason Derulo as Ron Isley, Pink Sweat$ as Bill Withers, and Grammy Award nominee Tayla Parx as Donna Summer. Playing the band KISS are musicians/actors Sam Harris as Paul Stanley, Casey Likes as Gene Simmons, and Alex Gaskarth as Peter Criss.
Acclaimed rapper Wiz Khalifa steps into the role of the legendary George Clinton. “Parliament is the DNA of funk - the band, the thought process, the way they mix genres. With the live experience from Parliament, they were beyond their years…..their music was and still is futuristic, and I hella respect them for that. You see everybody on stage like it was a real groove - that and the music go hand in hand because you’re bringing the music to life. ” commented Khalifa.
“Wiz was right on it,” says George Clinton himself. “I thought I heard me in there! I thought they sampled my voice! He did some homework.”
Portraying Donna Summer is vocalist Tayla Parx, a highly respected songwriter who has co-written several of Ariana Grande’s biggest hits, alongside songs for Panic! At the Disco and Khalid, and has recently begun her own path to singing stardom. “LaDonna Gaines had the voice, but Neil Bogart made Donna Summer a star,” says Parx. “I was fascinated by that – the give and take as those two things combine to create a legend.”
“The first act of Donna Summer’s story is the most exciting act,” says producer Mark, “and that’s the act we’re doing. People think Donna Summer just popped out fully formed, but that’s not the case at all. She was this religious girl who wasn’t very brash, but Neil worked the dials, and she turned into Donna Summer.”
“Neil Bogart was a visionary,” says Bruce Sudano, Donna Summer’s husband. “If he believed in an artist, and the record, there was no stopping him. He would find a way. He didn’t take no for an answer, he thought outside the box. So much is made of the excesses that went on during this period and at Casablanca, but it was always about the music, and it was driven by the passion and brilliance of Neil.”
Channeling Gladys Knight as she takes her fans on a Midnight Train to Georgia is Grammy-winning R&B and jazz artist Ledisi. “How do you play a legend like Gladys Knight? You have to capture both her incredibly sophisticated musicianship and her business sense. Being a girl from Georgia - a southern girl like me - really helped. We southern girls love to take songs and make them personal. When Gladys Knight sings, you believe that she is ready to give up the world she knows for another person.”
Bringing Neil to life is Tony Award nominated actor and singer Jeremy Jordan (Newsies, Bonnie & Clyde). “I had to do some research to find out who Neil was, but there wasn’t a lot out there,” says Jordan. “Tim had all the resources, so he would send me clips from things he had compiled that you can’t find online, interviews with people who had known Neil. I felt like I got to know him that way.
“What I learned was that Neil very much treated the artists like family,” Jordan says. “That’s kind of his magic – he welcomes them in, he gets them exactly where they’re at in their musical journey, their personal journey, where they are in life, where they are creatively, and makes them feel like they’re part of his family. That’s how he got all these people on board. He had this magnetism that he could back up, because he was smart as a producer and a businessman.”
Jordan recalls how Bogart realized how to make “Love to Love You” a hit: “With Casablanca on the verge of bankruptcy, Neil was throwing an end of the world party at his huge LA house when someone arbitrarily put on "Love to Love You." Now, the song was only 3 minutes long, but then someone asked him to play it again. And then again. And Neil looked around and saw that the song was having a very significant effect on people... let's just say they were doing more than dancing, and the song was what was driving their bodies. So Neil did something unheard of and decided to make the song 17 minutes long, the perfect length to have sex to without having to restart the record."
Jordan will never forget filming the scene in which Neil helps Donna Summer record this new version of “Love to Love You Baby.” “There are so many stories about how far things went in that recording session, but the only thing we really know is how the song turned out. In the film, Neil is in there with her, and he knows the song has to sell sex to be successful, so he really gets into it with Donna, and it gets a little inappropriate for sure, but you can’t not watch. And feel free to judge him for his methods, but he got Donna to a place with that song that got the rest of the world to see what he had known from the start. The record made her an overnight sensation and launched Donna into the stratosphere.”
Even as it celebrates his victories, Spinning Gold doesn’t shy away from Neil’s flaws, especially as he navigates the complications of love. “The emotional heart of the movie is centered around his love for two different women, his first wife Beth and his second wife Joyce – played incredibly by Michelle Monaghan and Lyndsy Fonseca, ” Jordan says. “With Beth there was this deep love, and with Joyce there was a slow burn, a kind of fire. In the movie, Neil falls for these two women in completely different ways. There’s the person who’s with you and adores you, and there’s the person who loves your mind and wants to peel your clothes off.
“In the end, Neil had three loves in his life,” says Jordan. “Beth, Joyce, and Donna Summer. He had a third kind of love for Donna – a paternal love, in a way.”
“Jeremy was the perfect actor to bring my father to life on the screen,” says Bogart. “Neil had this incredible, dynamic energy that could light up a room, and Jeremy was able to evoke that energy in the way he lights up the stage. Jeremy’s magnetic passion and connection to music, in so many ways reminded me of my father’s. This movie doesn’t pull any punches in showing my father’s flaws, including the ones he used to his advantage, and Jeremy was really able to capture all of those contradictions.”
Playing Neil’s wife, Beth, is Michelle Monaghan (the Mission: Impossible franchise, Gone Baby Gone). “Beth tries to be Neil’s rock. When they meet, they’re from very different backgrounds. Neil sweeps her off her feet, and she ends up caught up in his orbit as he sets out to pursue his dreams. Her husband changes his entire identity five times, trying on different careers and different names in his quest to make his mark on the world, and Beth finds that she has to try and keep up.”
“What’s interesting about their relationship,” Monaghan says, “ is that even when things start to get rough – even when Neil messes up big time – they still care about each other deeply. The real Neil and Beth were committed partners in life, and she was the first one to believe that his dreams could be a reality. Jeremy and I tried to bring that deep kinship and connection they had to the screen, even when Neil is breaking her heart.”
“When the cameras turned on, I just saw light in Michelle’s eyes,” says Jordan. “I just felt like she was totally in love. It was the most exciting and wonderful feeling as an actor, when the other person is giving you every bit of them. It was really beautiful to feel and experience that.”
Jay Pharoah (“Saturday Night Live,” Bad Hair) plays Cecil Holmes, Neil’s best friend and business partner. Tim Bogart recalls Cecil and his fathers relationship, “Cecil starts off as broke as Neil, but he’s just head over heels in love with the music and there’s nothing he’d rather be doing with his life. So when things start to spiral out of control, when Casablanca starts to sink into a truly scary amount of debt and the mafia gets involved, Cecil sticks with it. He believes in these artists. He knows that this work is worth it.”
“I met Neil and Cecil in 1974, right after we signed the deal to join Casablanca,” says George Clinton. “Cecil was this smooth, quiet dude most of the time. He was a singer—he was in a group called the Solitaires in the ‘50s.
But Neil’s influence on Cecil couldn’t be denied. “They had to be the closest of close,” says Clinton. “They were fans of big promotion tactics, absurd stuff—gluing records to turntables, putting on gorilla suits. They did anything it took to get your record on the air. You needed someone like that around you when you were trying to lift your spaceship off the ground.”
Jason Isaacs (the Harry Potter franchise, The Death of Stalin, The Patriot) plays the down-and-out Al Bogart, Neil’s father. “Al was a guy who talked big, gambled small, always failed and was never going to get out of Brooklyn,” Isaacs says. “Neil invented himself before he invented anybody else because of who his dad was and, more importantly, who his dad wasn’t. After meeting Al, I’m hoping the audience begins to understand why Neil would risk everything, why he would self-sabotage, why he would rather roll the dice to either make it big or lose everything. So that he’s at least taking a real swing in life.”
“There’s a lot of hubris in Al, a lot of pride and denial. He ends up living off of Neil’s money, but he won’t admit that he feels the low status that defines him. In his own mind things will turn around any minute. He never stopped talking big, holding his head up high and experiencing himself – or at least presenting himself – as a very big fish in a very little pond.”
But despite the legendary figures the movie portrays, Isaacs believes that there’s an intimacy to the story that audiences will connect with. “This is a universal story about people you can relate to. How big do you swing? How big do you dream? How much do you risk to get the things you want and, if you get them, can they ever fix what’s broken?”
Rounding out the cast are standup superstar Sebastian Maniscalco (The Irishman) as Giorgio Moroder, Peyton List (“The Rookie” and “Charmed”) as Nancy Weiss, Lyndsy Fonseca (Kick-Ass, Hot Tub Time Machine) as Joyce Biawitz, James Wolk (“Mad Men”) as Larry Harris, Michael Ian Black (“The State”) as Bill Aucoin, and Chris Redd (“Saturday Night Live”) as Frankie Crocker.
To capture that moment in history, the crew worked to design a film that was as stylish and unique as its main character. For production designer John El Manahi, that meant building a world that reflected the flow of Neil’s recollections. “We see the story through Neil’s memories, so it’s not about what really, factually happened,” says El Manahi, “It’s more about what Neil wants us to remember.” That subjectivity gave EL Manahi the challenge – and the freedom – to play with the look of the different time periods in the story. “We travel from Neil’s childhood to his adult life, from the ‘50s to the late ‘70s.” El Manahi says. “The idea was to desaturate the ‘50s, since those memories are further back, and kick in more color as Neil’s memories get fresher and more recent. It was a really fun exercise.” One of the most interesting sets to build was the Casablanca office. “That set is more than just a replica of the original office,” El Manahi explains. “We don’t have photos of the original office. We have some glimpses of it, but we really built the set from scratch, playing with different references and incorporating various elements – a giant logo, a big camel, Moroccan souvenirs – to recreate Neil’s wonderland.” Canadian costume designer Mario Davignon also played with color and style to show Neil’s evolving memories. “We see everything through Neil’s eyes,” he says, “and we wanted to show what Neil imagined when he saw these musical groups before they were known. We’re seeing them through the eyes of a man who was a dreamer, and who saw things differently.” However, Davignon still honored the time periods of the story. “Because the story starts in the ‘50s, we started with kind of a limited palette, and as the story moves into the ‘60s, we widen the palate but don’t introduce prints, and then in the ‘70s, the fashion is a free-for-all.”
Some of the most important design choices were for Neil himself. “Very often,” Davignon says, “fashion moves slowly, and with minimal changes from one period to another. Hairstyles, on the other hand, will show the passage of time more quickly, because they develop different silhouettes. We needed to show time passing for Neil, and his different influences. We start with him at the age of 19, in 1951, which is one time period. Then we show his evolution when he goes to Buddha Records, and then when he travels to L.A. to found Casablanca, his hair gets really big, and he adapts himself to the look of the west coast.”
Costume Designer Ellen Falguiere, who created, built and produced over 269 looks for the US production, particularly enjoyed designing all the stage costumes for Donna Summer, Kiss, Parliament, the Village People, and the dancers. “I particularly enjoyed designing Donna Summer’s costumes for her breakout concert, including her feather boa cape, which was an iconic Donna Summer look,” Falguiere says. “It’s an off-white handmade feather boa cape and took several weeks to acquire the unique feathers and build them into rows which formed the cascading structure. Another favorite was building the Kiss Costumes. “I enjoyed creating, building and embellishing these looks into something of my own design, especially the platform shoes with all the stud and leather work involved. Platform shoes are an iconic part of the 1970's clothing style, and we used them quite a bit, in their everyday looks, as well. I love the 1970's time period, and I had to create a lot of looks in a short prep time, so I just went all out!” Falguiere chuckles at how much fun she’s had with the audacity of some of the film’s costumes. “If you can’t go there in this movie, where else can you go?” she says. “We have rock and roll, disco, Parliament, soul, the Village People, KISS – it’s just fabulous. We pulled out all the stops.”
Of course, every creative decision in this film, whether it happens on or off camera, is in service of honoring Neil’s legacy. “Every one of these stories, I lived,” Bogart says. “The people who were the fabric of my life when I was young are now the beating heart of this story. I’m my father’s son, telling the story of my father, who was his father’s son, but the emotional weight of this film isn’t about my own relationship to my father, it’s about the awe and wonder I have about this period in musical history.”
When Bogart interviewed Donna Summer and the other luminaries who were part of Casablanca, he found that one theme emerged over and over again. “I would ask them, ‘what was it like?’” he says, “and almost every single person said the same thing. They’d tell me, ‘I don’t know how I survived it, and I don’t know if I’d do it again … but it was the greatest time of my life.’ That’s the story I set out to tell.”