Documentary revives the reputation of the Go-Go’s, one of the great bands of the 80s
There’s a key moment early in “The Go-Go’s” when baby-faced L.A. punks Jane Wiedlin and Belinda Carlisle take a road trip to San Francisco to see the Sex Pistols. Everyone in their scene did, because the tour was a big deal in the punk-rock world. When the Pistols finally took the stage, they sucked as usual, flaunting their shitty performance as deliberate. It was a wakeup call for Wiedlin and Carlisle, who decided they could form an all-girl group and at least be better than that.
THE GO-GO’S ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Alison Ellwood
Running time: 98 min
Anyone with even a passing interest in the Go-Go’s, the first all-female rock group to write their own music and have a number one record on the Billboard chart, plus two giant hits (and one slightly-less-giant one, in “Vacation”) must watch Alison Ellwood’s documentary, which just premiered on Showtime.
It was a long-overdue primer for this critic. The Go-Go’s obsessed me when I was a kid; 1981’s “Beauty and the Beat” was the first record I ever bought, and I still know every note and lyric of that album like muscle memory. But the band never had the same kind of lasting cachet as a lot of other hit bands from the ‘80s–funny, that!–and over the years, the music world seemed increasingly to relegate them to novelty status.
Ellwood (American Jihad) dispels that notion with a wealth of amazing archival footage and clear-eyed recollections from the five band members and their erstwhile manager, Ginger Canzoneri, as well as a handful of talking heads, including riot-grrrl royalty Kathleen Hanna and former MTV guy Chris Connelly.
In format, “The Go-Go’s” pretty much hews to the generic rock-doc trajectory: The dizzying rise to fame, the glory days of stadiums and money and drugs, the splintering of relationships, the rehab. But for a number of reasons, it’s more than that. First, the Go-Go’s at the time were literally the only female band doing what they did, at their level; some creepy dude named Kim Fowley assembled their predecessors The Runaways, but these women wrote their own stuff and didn’t give a fuck what creepy dudes thought about them. Wiedlin fondly remembers people crossing the street when they saw her in the early days.
A couple band members leave when the group shifts toward pop and away from punk. When the band goes into the studio to record their first album, Beauty and the Beat, a producer leans on them to slow their songs down so people can actually hear the lyrics and melodies. A little square, maybe, but pretty savvy too.
A cascade of excellent rock tidbits follows, from the amusing (they had to return those Beauty and the Beat cover shoot towels to Macy’s, because they couldn’t afford them) to peak ‘80s (Valentine learned the band’s entire catalogue of songs on a three-day coke binge) to the downright harrowing (Caffey, the group’s most prolific songwriter, seems to have managed a serious heroin habit for most of the band’s time together). The Go-Go’s, who started out as a house band at the L.A. venue Whisky a Go Go, went on tour with Brit ska bands Madness and The Specials, whose fans included scary skinheads and typical boors. One recording captures someone yelling “Show us your tits!” But the Police, whom they toured with later, were gentlemanly elder statesmen, toasting the up-and-coming band with champagne the day their single bested the guys on the charts.
Through it all runs the tiresome thread of sexism, which dogs the Go-Go’s to this day. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as Connelly indignantly points out, still hasn’t inducted them. For the band’s first Rolling Stone cover, photographer Annie Leibovitz convinced them to wear plain Hanes underwear as a tongue-in-cheek riff on the lingerie-pose trope. The magazine promptly ruined the concept with the headline GO-GOS PUT OUT, which rankles the band to this day. The women caved to music industry pressure, jettisoning the management of longtime supporter Canzoneri for a team of men, which they plainly now regret.
Despite the inevitable falling-outs, the group has since come back together–they were set to be doing a big tour right about now–and it’s touching to see them in all their middle-aged glory sitting down to work on their new single, “Club Zero.” I hope they know how many former starry-eyed tween fans like me are basking in the sisterhood, and waiting on a sheepish announcement from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.