Biopic of Neil Bogart, the guy who made us dance.
Toward the end of the film Spinning Gold, Neil Bogart, portrayed by Jeremy Jordan, tells viewers, “I’ll bet you each $100 not one of you ever heard my name. And that’s OK … but I sure as hell made you dance.”
That’s no lie. As a music executive, Bogart scored indelible hits with acts such as the Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Bill Withers and more and, after starting Casablanca Records in 1973, launched the careers of Kiss, Donna Summer, Parliament, the Village People and Lipps, Inc., among others. He was credited with turning the underground disco movement into a commercial juggernaut.
Now, with Spinning Gold, filmmaker Timothy Scott Bogart wants to ensure people around the world do hear his father’s name.
“I understood that he was a dreamer of no limitations,” says Bogart, 53, who wrote, directed and co-produced the project. “And I saw someone who worked every single day to not only make his own dreams come true but (also for) all those around him. Then I saw that disappear in the blink of an eye” when Neil Bogart died at 39 in 1982 from cancer.
“I think, ultimately, whenever I would talk about his story, I felt like, ‘My God, he did more in 39 years than most people do in a lifetime.’
“That became his message to me — What am I gonna do? This life is precious. I better do something meaningful and not leave anything on the field. Nobody’s gonna do it for you. You’ve got to persevere, no matter what. That’s a pretty good message in general, right?”
The younger Bogart certainly took that to heart in the making of Spinning Gold.
The biopic has been in motion since 1999 and became “24 years of pushing that boulder up the hill every day” for the fledgling filmmaker. “Every Thanksgiving the family would get together and be like, ‘What’s going on with the movie?’” Bogart recalls. The major impediment was — as noted in the script — nobody quite knew who Neil Bogart was.
“Every time it got serious, it started to dawn on the studios that it’s not the Donna Summer story, it’s not the Kiss story. It’s Neil Bogart, who nobody knows, and the drive for doing (a film) about this guy who was fundamentally lost to history would disappear,” Bogart says. “Hollywood needs to know what they’re getting. The financiers, too. It’s different than saying I’m gonna do the Ray Charles biopic, the Aretha Franklin biopic. You know what you’re getting.
“I think it was a little scary for them. That’s why I finally decided to do it independently.”
A Story Worth Telling
Bogart certainly knew he had a story worth telling. His father was born Neil Bogatz at Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, where he was raised in the Flatlands. The idea of dreaming big was instilled by his father (played by Jason Isaacs), a post office employee whose gambling habit was driven by those ambitions. Neil Bogart fell in love with music, working as a singer under the name Neil Scott and briefly as a pornographic actor.
An acumen for sales and commerce led him to the business side of the entertainment industry; he ran the Michigan offices of Cameo-Parkway Records during the mid-’60s until the label was shut down for stock fraud in 1968. He then wound up at Buddah Records, where he had success with the Edwin Hawkins Signers’ “Oh Happy Day” and singles by Melanie, the Jaggerz and more, and also lured the Isleys and Knight and even the production team Holland-Dozier-Holland away from Motown.
According to the film, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. once ordered a hit on Bogart, but Buddah’s own organized crime partners intervened.
Striking out on his own, Bogart started Casablanca during 1973 in Los Angeles, starting with Kiss and weathering years of dire financial distress — including a particularly disastrous album project with Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show — until “The Kiss Alive!” album and Summer’s “I Feel Love” turned the company into a major force that was eventually purchased by the PolyGram conglomerate.
Tim Bogart, born to Bogart and his first wife, Beth, channeled many of his own memories into the making of Spinning Gold.
“It was candy-colored,” he says of his life growing up. “It was a magic carpet ride. He wasn’t just in a larger-than-life business; there was no distinction between business and family. It was a family business, and that extended to the musical acts.
“Donna Summer was my aunt. Her kids were my sisters. (Kiss’) Gene (Simmons), Paul (Stanley) and Ace (Frehley), those guys were around the house all the time.”
Bogart tells of visiting his father in Los Angeles shortly after his mother started him with violin lessons. “My dad said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘I started playing violin.’ He doesn’t say anything but makes a phone call. Fifteen minutes later, Gene Simmons walks in, takes the violin, shatters it and hands me a 1958 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe bronze stock (guitar) and a little Pignose amplifier and says, ‘You’re gonna play rock ‘n’ roll, kid!’ And I still have that guitar.
“Growing up in this sort of fantasy land was an extraordinary place to be,” he says.
The Dark Side of the Story
The fantasy wasn’t always pretty. His parents divorced when he was young, after his father began an affair with early Kiss manager Joyce Biawitz, who became his second wife and mother of two more children. As an adolescent, Tim Bogart also witnessed his share of debauchery — including a house party depicted in the film that turned into a veritable orgy when Summer’s “I Feel Love” played on the stereo. He was also privy to his father’s prodigious drug use.
“The moment I started really thinking about (the film), I really did distinguish myself between the son and the storyteller,” Bogart explains. “As a son, I still thought it was fascinating, but as a storyteller I thought those flaws were what made great characters and a great story. More importantly, I thought my father’s flaws, and he had many, were in fact his superpowers. If he was not a gambling womanizer, Casablanca would not have happened.
“I never considered for a minute I would polish those rough edges or hide any of that stuff. I thought, as a storyteller and as a son, this is a human. It was messy. These characters were messy, and I thought that made it universally interesting.”
Bogart did consult family members — some of whom serve as co-producers of Spinning Gold — as well as the musicians and business associates. But “I made it very clear that I want to hear everything, and I guarantee you nothing. That was a really important kind of dividing line.”
Spinning Gold also has a palpable underpinning of Jewish sensibility, although seldom directly. “I think Judaism was actually quite important to him,” Bogart says of his father, whose own father proclaims him “a Jewish genius” in the film. “He was Neil Bogatz from the Brooklyn projects. It starts there. There was something about that little Jewish kid from Brooklyn that gave him a little bit of the train-that-could mentality. It was him against the world.
“I wouldn’t say my family was incredibly observant. We went to all the High Holiday services. I was bar mitzvahed — that was important to him. We went to Israel a number of times, and it was resonant. It didn’t define our lives, but it was absolutely a part of the definition of our lives — for him and for us kids and my mom and our grandparents, without a doubt.”
Putting It All Together
Finding the actor to play his father came at the 11th hour, however, about two months before filming began. Justin Timberlake had been attached to the film back in 2011 but had to step away due to schedule conflicts. Bogart had “a very well-known, incredibly talented actor” in place for the lead in a cast that also includes Jay Pharaoh, Sebastian Maniscalo, Michael Ian Black and musical artists Jason Derulo, Wiz Khalifa, Ledisi, All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth and X Ambassadors’ Sam Harris, Pink Sweats and Tayla Parx. But Bogart had reservations about his choice.
At the suggestion of co-produce Laurence Mark, he checked out Jeremy Jordan, who’d been nominated for a Tony Award in Newsies and won a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Debut in Bonnie & Clyde.
“I spent seven hours on YouTube going down this rabbit hole watching this guy who had the audience wrapped in his hands every time he sang,” Bogart recalls. “His command of being a showman is everything my father was. He was the guy, no question.”
Nearly a quarter-century after conception, Spinning Gold is not the end of Bogart’s mission to tell his father’s story. He and half-brother Evan “E. Kidd” Bogart — who worked on the musical end of the film, including the original song “ Greatest Time” — are “full steam ahead” on a stage musical they hope to open on Broadway during the spring of 2024.
“It’s a logical place to tell the story,” says Bogart, who’s also working on a musical film trilogy called Verona based on Romeo & Juliet.
“My father made a really significant impact, so I think it’s important that people know about this dreamer, this gambler who brought all this great music to the world.”
Spinning Gold is currently in theaters and will soon go to streaming services.