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‘The Go-Go’s’ Review: A Marvelous Look into one of the Most Joyous Sounds of Punk Rock

Alison Ellwood’s documentary is a strikingly honest and nuanced look at the first all-female instrumentalists to top the charts.

Courtesy of Sundance

The Go-Go’s are an explosion of contradictions. The effervescent, punk-turned-pop group whose members couldn’t play any instruments before forming a band out of the pure spirit of the late 1970s-early ‘80s Los Angeles underground scene are also the first (and, to date, only) all-female band to play their own instruments, write their own songs, and top the Billboard charts. They burned brightly, despite all manner of industry resistance, practically defined MTV, and burned out after a scant three albums. In the plainly named The Go-Go’s, director Alison Ellwood, whose previous docs include the miniseries History of the Eagles and Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place, weaves a thoroughly entertaining and informative film with a structure that may not differ from a standard rock doc, but is remarkable both for its subjects and the abject, blunt honesty with which they fill in the gaps of their more public history. 

After opening on concert footage that’s just degraded enough to support the “we did it all ourselves” impetus of the band, rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist Jane Wiedlin becomes a de-facto protagonist of the doc. She speaks about her own battles with intense depression, a sense of ill-belonging, and subsequent yearning that combined with her venturing out to the punk parties of Los Angeles to birth the first iteration of the band in 1978. Along with singer Belinda Carlisle, lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey, bassist Margot Olavarria, and drummer Elissa Bello, The Go-Go’s were completely amateur, sometimes playing the only two songs they knew over and over at gigs and running on love of the energy alone — a motif throughout the doc. 

The most unqualifiedly joyous portions of the documentary, and indeed of the Go-Go’s’ history, occur in this formation of what was to become their best sound. Charming animations illustrate how Caffey came up with the entirety of “We Got The Beat” in one day after a wild spark of inspiration from The Twilight Zone, of all things. Wiedlin and drummer Gina Schock (replacing Bello) reminisce about their initial band-romance, and their cartoonishly typical lovers-to-best exes arc. And downright heroic manager Ginger Canzonieri believed in the band so much that in order to get them to open overseas for UK ska bands The Specials and Madness, she sold or pawned anything of value, including her own car. That tour, which had skinheads lining up to jeer insults and slurs at the decidedly too-female band of empowered, couldn’t give a flying hoot punk musicians, concretized their sound and stage presence. 

When the band came back from the UK, toughened from performing in the most hostile circumstances, they developed a following that could not be dampened by record companies’ refusals to sign them. As Wiedlin says, their motivation for those early years was based on a collective need to support each other in breaking norms, buoyed by a sense of having absolutely nothing to lose: “we hated society and our parents, but we loved each other.” After Olavarria and Bello were pushed out of the band in favor of drummer Gina Schock and bassist Kathy Valentine (who laughs through her own story of learning all of the Go-Go’s songs and the bass guitar while on a coke binge), the band was formed into what an audience today might recognize as the definitive iteration of their particular brand of power-pop superstardom.

Records were finally made, and catapulted, by Miles Copeland of I.R.S. Records — the same label repping The Police. The film then treats music history buffs to a behind-the-scenes view of how the band met with their sudden fame. Polaroid series of the musicians goofing off, sleeping it off, and generally losing their minds accompany interviews with all The Go-Go’s. If one is already familiar with The Go-Go’s swift disappearance, which by now can be considered merely a long hiatus, they might know the trajectory this story takes. Pushed far too hard by a new, unrelenting tour in order to promote albums that hadn’t even been written yet, the band first lost manager Ginger in favor of a group of experienced but insincere corporate managers, then started losing their sound, then their members. The story of commercial emptiness is heartbreaking, especially given the gleeful grime of their origins and the defiance they showed in every early act, including their first music video for MTV when they did all they could to cause a public nuisance in hope of getting arrested on camera. 

Between the narrated downfall and the newly emerging resuscitation of the band, which shows them coming back together in 2019 to consider the possibilities of a new album and tour, there are some gems of documentary form. Elwood’s questions are never made audible, but are obviously provocative and thorough enough to elicit stories from Caffey of her invisibly devastating heroin addiction and recovery, from Wiedlin of her insecurity, anger, and sadness in being made to feel as though she could never draw the kind of attention Carlisle had, and frustrations of Carlisle and Schock at being the two lowest-earning members of the band (neither had songwriting credits). Among all these publicly unaired emotions, the documentary still treats the band with love, nowhere more prominent than in the boozy, drugged-up road trip the band took to Palm Springs in order to celebrate Schock’s last weekend of freedom before being treated for a congenital heart defect. Photos, video, and interviews baldly display the love they still have for one another, and the choices, utterly reckless to some, that they make in order to support themselves against a mainstream record industry.

Despite the most difficult, dangerous chapters in each of the members’ lives, and the personal and professional grievances they unflinchingly feed to the camera, The Go-Go’s stories are not of plain antipathy. Through the frankness of the interviews, and supporting, meticulously curated archival footage, The Go-Go’s does not ever veer too far into one direction or point of view so that it loses the nuances of a punk history. Not everything is pretty, and not everything is genuinely punk, but everyone is abnormally vulnerable, and willing to be seen in all number of lights. This layering is what makes the documentary so watchable — not only for fans of the band, but for any music appreciator. The doc is an at-times painfully honest look at the hypocrisies and fabrications of an industry hungry for new talent, but more than willing to distill it into the most palatable serving — as long as it comes on a double platinum platter. 

As sad as it may be that the record industry did swallow up one of the most surprising new sounds in popular music, the doc takes great care to emphasize the meddling hands of sexist tastemakers and capitalists, but never to center them and to also provide a narrative of resistance. The doc could have closed with the end of The Go-Go’s original popularity, but the documentation of their coming back together is awesome. Each member is given time to talk about their current projects — a standard in any  doc of currently living and performing artists — but the fate of The Go-Go’s is not yet sealed. That reunion, of women who have kicked the commercial record influence that both uplifted and destroyed them, seems like the biggest middle finger of all. 

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