(JTA) — In the hit show “The Sopranos,” veteran actor Jerry Adler plays mob-adjacent Jewish businessman Hesh Rabkin, who made a fortune in the music business decades earlier. In a first season episode, Hesh is confronted by a rapper seeking “reparations” for a late Black musician who he says Rabkin didn’t pay fairly for a hit record.
When Hesh responds by bragging that he wrote the hit songs he worked on back in the day, Tony Soprano corrects him: “A couple of Black kids wrote that record, you gave yourself co-writing credit because you owned the label.”
The greedy Jewish music mogul has been a common trope, from the acclaimed work of Spike Lee to the rants of Kanye West. “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” a 2003 parody of music biopics, made fun of the trope itself by making the record executives into Hasidic Jews, led by Harold Ramis. (They were depicted as friendly and not so greedy, and the film’s writers, Judd Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, are both Jewish.)
The new movie “Spinning Gold,” which opened in theaters last week, tells the real-life story of Neil Bogart, the founder of Casablanca Records and a top music executive of the 1970s. It breaks from the mold of most other music biopics in a couple of key ways: The protagonist is a music executive, not an artist or a group, and the music mogul character — in this case, another Jewish one — is not treated as a villain.
The Jewish Brooklyn native whose given name was Neil Scott Bogatz helped promote bubblegum pop and early disco, signing artists such as Donna Summer, Gladys Knight, Cher and the Village People. A notable rock signing was Kiss. In one scene of “Spinning Gold,” the Bogart character (played by Jewish actor Jeremy Jordan, who starred in the Broadway hit “Rock of Ages”) implies to Kiss’ Gene Simmons that he signed the band, in part, because Simmons’ and guitarist Paul Stanley’s real names are Chaim Witz and Stanley Eisen. He relates to them, the film argues, as fellow Jewish guys who hailed from the outer boroughs of New York City. Bogart died of cancer in 1982.
The movie covers a long span in Bogart’s life and career, and it shows him struggling for many years before striking gold by shepherding Donna Summer’s single “Love to Love You Baby” to hit status. Timothy Scott Bogart, the mogul’s son and the film’s director, did not want to depict Bogart as an unambiguous hero. In the story, the elder Bogart is shown cheating on his first wife with the woman who would become his second, and the film also makes clear that his record label was heavily in debt for many years. It does sometimes show him at odds with the talent, such as when the members of Kiss complain to him that their career hasn’t taken under Bogart’s tutelage.
“I don’t know that I looked at it as protagonist or antagonist, I think he was a bit of both,” Timothy Scott Bogart told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“But I do think the character of the executive, in general, has been a much-maligned character… certainly in the music biopic world,” he added. “And that’s not who Neil Bogart was.”
He added that the personal relationships between his father and the label’s artists were always valued. He remembers his family going on vacation with Donna Summer, and Gladys Knight and members of Kiss being at his home.
The younger Bogart, who previously produced the 2019 Vietnam War drama “The Last Full Measure,” said that rather than relying on any book or article, he constructed the film based on interviews he did with his artists, executives and others involved in the story over several years.
Jews have been part of the business side of the American music industry for most of its existence, in part because of the way they were shut out of many professions in the first half of the 20th century. Music executive Seymour Stein, who passed away this week after a long career of working with the likes of Madonna and The Ramones, said in a 2013 interview that “music is something Jews were good at and they could do. All immigrants into America tried their hand at show-business.”
Some executives in the early days of the music industry — Jewish and non-Jewish — did exploit their artists, doing everything from underpaying Black artists to denying them songwriting credits or royalties. Moguls of the past with reputations for doing so included Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records. Others, like the recently deceased Stein and Milt Gabler of Commodore Records, had better reputations. Historians have differing opinions on specific individuals.
“There is a scholarly controversy between those who look at the moguls and say that they exploited the [Black] musicians and those who say that they encouraged and made possible Black success in music,” said Jonathan Sarna, the professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “Both use the same data, but some point to the money Jews made and others point to the musicians that Jews discovered and promoted.”
Spike Lee drew fire for his depiction of fictional Jewish music executives Moe and Josh Flatbush (played by John and Nicholas Turturro) in his 1990 movie “Mo’ Better Blues.”
“In the history of American music, there have not been Jewish people exploiting black musicians?” Spike Lee said in his defense to New York Magazine in 2006. “In the history of music? How is that being stereotypical?”
Other “bad guy” examples include Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton” and David Krumholtz’s Milt Shaw in 2004’s “Ray.” “Cadillac Records,” from 2008, starred Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, the Jewish founder of the legendary Chess Records who, the film implied, gave his mostly Black artists Cadillacs, but not always the money they were owed. “Get On Up,” the 2014 biopic of James Brown that starred the late Chadwick Boseman, cast Fred Melamed as famed Cincinnati mogul Syd Nathan (a mentor to Seymour Stein); journalist RJ Smith criticized the film for depicting Nathan as a “bumptious racist.”
Actor Seth Rogen discussed the trope in his 2021 memoir “Yearbook.” He tells the story of running into comedian Eddie Griffin, who at a late point in his career had been struggling to get movie roles. Griffin told Rogen to “tell your Jews to let other people make some movies!”
Rogen called this “insane because he’s really ignoring the fact that if there’s one thing that Jewish people are NOT above, it’s making money producing things that are fronted by Black people. Anyone who’s ever seen a biopic of any Black musician knows the character I’m talking about, and he’s usually very appropriately played by my dear friend David Krumholtz.” (Krumholtz played one of the Hasidic producers in “Walk Hard.”)
“It’s certainly true that, in the post-war U.S. music industry, Jews were more likely to be producers and impresarios than performers. And, given the importance of African-Americans in the post-war U.S. music industry, that inevitably created a particular kind of relationship with certain Jews in the music industry,” sociologist and music critic Keith Kahn-Harris told JTA.
“That relationship starts to be put under scrutiny and under strain from the late 1960s, as the civil rights coalition started to fall apart and people of color began to assert their agency,” he added. “It’s also true that the post-war music industry was an unregulated space with an almost-normative pattern of exploitation of performers. Put all that together and you have all the ingredients for significant African-American-Jewish tension. Plus, the rapacious Jewish impresario sits easily with ingrained antisemitic stereotypes.”
“Spinning Gold” isn’t the only counterexample to the trend in film. In last year’s Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” the Jewish label honcho character, Clive Davis (played by Stanley Tucci), is treated as a benevolent guiding light. In that case, Davis was among the producers of the movie.
“Jewish promoters, like all music promoters, were and are first and foremost business people selling a product. Their goal: promote a performer to reap income. The performers have obviously a different stake in the transaction, although both depend on the other,” said Hasia Diner, an American Jewish history professor at New York University.
“If the hero of the film is the performer then her/his perspective is the focus and almost by definition the promoter’s perspective has to reflect the antagonist encounter. Does that merit being called antisemitism? Not in my estimation. By doing so it undermines real antisemitism. It also ignores the inherent business transaction involved,” Diner said.
How can filmmakers navigate this?
“With great care,” Kahn-Harris said. “It does mean paying attention to how such a portrayal can be accurate and not feeding on deeper antisemitic stereotypes. There’s no one way of doing this. It requires care and attention to the historical record.”