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The Go-Go’s documentary is honest and outstanding

Alison Ellwood’s film on the L.A.-based, all-female band pulls no punches and shows why they were so successful, revolutionary and influential.
The poster for Showtime’s airing of the documentary..

The poster for Showtime’s airing of the documentary..

By John Curley

The Go-Go’s, the new documentary by filmmaker Alison Ellwood that chronicles the rise and fall and rise again of the Los Angeles-based, all-female band, premieres on Showtime on Friday, July 31st, at 9 p.m. Eastern. The film is brutally honest. It pulls no punches, and it presents The Go-Go’s as something of a dysfunctional family that worked really well together and made some terrific music despite the dysfunction. While the bulk of the documentary concentrates on the band’s pop-rock successes by the best known lineup – lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle, guitarist Jane Wiedlin, guitarist/keyboardist Charlotte Caffey, bassist Kathy Valentine and drummer Gina Shock – it does give a comprehensive history of the band that starts with their roots in the Los Angeles punk community. Bits of early, punky songs by the band are heard, including a diatribe aimed at Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn. The band’s original bassist, Margot Olavarria, and original drummer, Elissa Bello, are interviewed in the film, and both discuss their hurt over being fired by the band.

Alison Ellwood, the Director of the film. (Photo by Jules Kueffer)

Alison Ellwood, the director of the film. (Photo by Jules Kueffer)

Wiedlin and Carlisle both talk about the punk days of the band with great affection, about how they felt part of the community and how it emboldened them. Caffey joining the band made them better, and Caffey, Wiedlin and Carlisle all discuss how Shock coming onboard really upped their game.

A section of the film covers their 1980 U.K. tour on which they supported Madness and The Specials, and how that tour helped hone the band and made them tougher. The Go-Go’s took a great deal of abuse from racist and sexist National Front members in the audiences at the U.K. shows and were subjected to crude remarks from crowd members. But the band members talk about how that treatment drove them to be a better band. Lynval Golding of The Specials and Lee Thompson of Madness are both interviewed in the film, and they discuss how impressed they were with The Go-Go’s and about how much fun spending time with them was on that tour. Wiedlin and Terry Hall of The Specials became close on that tour and corresponded afterward. That correspondence led to the song “Our Lips Are Sealed.”

The pop leanings of songs like Caffey’s “We Got The Beat” did not sit well with Olavarria, who felt that the band were turning their backs on their punk roots. The dissension came to a head when Olavarria became ill and was going to miss a series of important shows at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. The band recruited Valentine, who had been playing with L.A. rockers The Textones, to stand in for Olavarria. Valentine fit in quite well with the band, so the decision was taken to let Olavarria go. And the task of firing her was left to the band’s manager, Ginger Canzoneri, who talks about how dreadful it was having to make that phone call. Canzoneri is rightfully given the credit for refusing to sell the band’s publishing, a decision which would later make the songwriters in the band quite a bit of money.

The Go-Go’s performing in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day, 1981. (Photo by Cassy Cohen)

The Go-Go’s performing in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day, 1981. (Photo by Cassy Cohen)

The Go-Go’s fortunes took a big turn when they signed their record deal with I.R.S. Records in 1981. Label founder Miles Copeland (brother of The Police’s Stewart Copeland) discusses why he signed them and what appealed to him about the band. Teaming the band with producer Richard Gottehrer for the sessions in New York City tuned out to be fortuitous, because Gottehrer suggested slowing down some of the songs, making them more poppy and less punky. A good decision, as the resultant album, Beauty and the Beat, eventually went to Number 1 in the Billboard album chart. While the band was on the up, Caffey’s drug issues were worsening, and she discusses going into dangerous places in NYC’s Alphabet City to score heroin during the making of Beauty and the Beat. Olavarria, who had relocated to New York City from Los Angeles after being fired by the band, talks about seeing Caffey on her way to buy heroin in the city and, by the direction that Caffey was going, knew what Caffey was up to. But Caffey managed to keep her addiction a secret from the band.

Beauty and the Beat hit just as the music-video revolution started. It was spearheaded by the 24-hour music-video channel MTV, which went on the air in August 1981, just a month after Beauty and the Beat’s release. The band members discuss how much they hated making the video for “Our Lips Are Sealed” and even that they climbed into the fountain seen in the video in hopes of getting arrested and having the arrest of the band on tape. The “Our Lips Are Sealed” video received a considerable amount of airplay on MTV, which played a big role in the success of the album. Original MTV VJ Martha Quinn appears in the film and talks about how MTV and The Go-Go’s were good for each other.

A tour with The Police was a big coup for The Go-Go’s, and Stewart Copeland discusses how great they were on that tour. The tour included a show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and Wiedlin notes that The Go-Go’s went from playing dive bars to the Garden in the space of a year. Beauty and the Beat bypassed The Police’s Ghost in the Machine in the Billboard album chart while that tour was underway and, rather than being upset, The Police congratulated The Go-Go’s. Sting even gave a bottle of Champagne to them. When Beauty and the Beat went to Number 1, it marked the only time that an all-female band that wrote their own songs and played their own instruments achieved that feat.

The band discusses what they saw as a disastrous appearance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live when they performed after drinking for hours and still seem shocked that their album sales increased after the program aired. But the effect of drinking, drugs and overwork had on the band is examined in the portion of the dealing with their second album, Vacation. The title track was a song that Valentine had written during her time with The Textones and had recorded it with them. The song was reworked by The Go-Go’s and became the big single on the album. Caffey credits Valentine for saving the album with the song.

The Go-Go’s are shown here during the video shoot for “Vacation.” (Photo by Ginger Canzoneri)

The Go-Go’s are shown here during the video shoot for “Vacation.” (Photo by Ginger Canzoneri)

Canzoneri, who had managed The Go-Go’s since their early punk days in Los Angeles, gets emotional when talking about the band’s decision to seek a more powerful, more established management team. The band members now admit that letting Canzoneri go was a mistake, and Carlisle states that the band was less fun and seemed more like a business after Canzoneri left. That change in management also led to Shock discovering that the band’s songwriters made significantly more than she and Carlisle. That was only part of the problem around the time of the recording of the band’s third album, 1984’s Talk Show. Caffey had writer’s block due to her increased drug use. Wiedlin wanted to sing one of the songs that she wrote for Talk Show and was furious when the band refused. And Shock had to have surgery to repair a hole in her heart. Shock’s health issue did lead to one of the few bright spots of the period, a debauched weekend for the band in Palm Springs on which they bonded, partied and cheered up Shock as her surgery approached.

The money issue reared its head again when Wiedlin was told that royalties would be evenly split for the Talk Show album. It’s clear that Wiedlin is still angry about it, and states that she worked very hard on the album. She admits that she still can’t listen to the album since it is a reminder of the hard feelings. And that issue led her to tell the other band members that she was leaving. But she had to complete the tour with the band before her exit. Wiedlin jokes about being a “robo Go-Go” on that tour, putting on a happy face for the crowd while being very unhappy inside.

Caffey states that she was devastated when Wiedlin left the band, and the others say that the band never was the same after Wiedlin’s departure. The bassist Paula Jean Brown was brought into the band with Valentine moving to her natural instrument, guitar. Footage of the band with Brown performing at the massive Rock in Rio show in Brazil is shown. While Brown’s time in the band was short lived, she did make a mark in two very important ways. She alerted the other band members of the severity of Caffey’s drug problem and helped Caffey enter a recovery program to get clean. And she wrote the song “Mad About You” for the band. It later became a big solo hit for Carlisle in 1986.

Caffey getting clean made her realize that she had to leave the band. The meeting the she and Carlisle called to tell Valentine and Shock that the band was breaking up is chronicled in the film. Valentine and Shock still seethe when discussing how unfair they thought it was. And they go on to talk about how difficult it was to see Carlisle enjoy solo success while their post Go-Go’s careers were not going nearly as well. The Go-Go's had the first of many reunions in 1990.

The more recent history of the band, which included a fourth studio album (2001’s God Bless The Go-Go’s), isn’t given much time in the film, unfortunately. But Ellwood did a terrific job overall with the film. And the brief animated bits that resemble 1980’s music videos and help to tell the story are a great touch.

As their film nears its conclusion, interviewees Stewart Copeland, Chris Connelly of Rolling Stone magazine and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill all speak with astonishment of the fact that The Go-Go’s are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many viewers of the film will be wondering why that situation exists. The film certainly makes the case that the band belongs there. They were revolutionary as well as influential, as Hanna attests.

The Go-Go’s are shown working on their first new song since 2001 as the film wraps up. The song, “Club Zero,” is being released as a single on Friday, July 31st. The finished song, which plays over the end credits, is quite good, a heavy, rocking bit of power pop. The Go-Go’s, all now in their 60’s, prove that they can still rock with the best of them.

"Club Zero" can be heard below:

The trailer for the film can be seen below:

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