‘The Go-Go’s’: A Review of Their New Doc From a Fan As Old As They Are

Photo taken from the film ‘The Go-Go’s’ (Polygram/Showtime)

The new doc ‘The Go-Gos’, much like the band’s music, is brisk, well-paced, and full of sudden depth charges. Getting to hear the entire band reflect from a position of hard-won sanity and sobriety adds a layer of calm to a frenetic burst of a story. Solo interviews with these women (Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlin) who are now in their 60s are highly and characteristically appealing, benefitting from an apparent common agreement to tell-it-like-it-was.

The film begins with a blast of thrash and fury. We see how each young woman was attracted to and found a home in the punk scene of Los Angeles, Sunset Strip, San Fernando Valley-style, with important and frank commentary from the band’s co-founding members Elissa Bello and Margot Olavarria. Belinda marvels at how the freedom of those formative days, when traditional markers of musicianship or fashion didn’t matter; the ‘worse you were the cooler you were.’ The film uses a rich trove of photos, flyers, articles and remembrances to summon the vivacity of the clubs and convey the specific, spiky energy The Go-Go’s had in their DNA from their start.

I recall that time in Los Angeles (and adjacent Orange County, which also had a vigorous punk scene). Life then for music fans attracted to punk and ‘new wave’ was a cruise-around adventure: Melrose Ave thrift shops and vinyl records by day, somebody’s band at Madame Wong’s by night, dinner and beer at Gorky’s after.

Bands tried to grab your attention with their DIY Xeroxed flyers; the street poles on Melrose or Highland were prime territory, papered with ironic retro design flourishes, kidnap-letter graphics and hundreds of abandoned staples glistening in the sun.

There were lots of ‘The Somethings!’ bands. I remember the flyers for ‘The Go-Go’s’ standing out for reasons we see in the film, a name and early ‘branding’-styling that deliberately recalled the early 60’s, a time period that got traction in the punk and new wave movements. Plus, this band had cool-looking girls, wearing the same kinds of clothes you shopped for at Aardvark’s, but combined in ways they pulled off with a flair for inducing admiring double-takes.

Remember this was the time when wearing anything by emerging mega-labels, like Calvin Klein Jeans or Ralph Lauren’s polo shirtts got you pegged as a Reaganite conservative; you would never go to a gig or see a midnight movie at The Nuart in a mass-market outfit. Instead you raided your dad’s closet for skinny ties or scoured discount racks for a black overcoat, maybe borrow an elder auntie’s costume jewelry. Recycling previous eras never felt so frontline contemporary.

This was a large part of The Go-Go’s aesthetic, and part of what drew many of us in to discover their music. In some ways, ‘The Go-Go’s’ were cousins to another rock-dance band that started up from club floors in the late seventies, The B-52’s. They both rejected the gauche look of ‘classic’ rock. Instead they embraced a stylistic kitschy vibe which somehow combined late fifties TV, “Beach Blanket” movies at the drive-in, surf guitars and the teen drama of a song by The Shangri-Las. (In The B-52s’ case, the glorious ‘Give Me Back My Man’ is a good example; with The Go-Go’s too many to mention, but ‘This Town’ and ‘Worlds Away’ come to mind.) The B-52s were able to find a wide range of variations on that sixties imagery and explored it successfully over the years with affection.

‘The Go-Go’s’, in their first record covers and publicity photos created visuals evoking a similar retro vibe, but after a while, it started to box them in. Most of us knew that the ‘cute girls in a band’ imaging was meant with a wink, but as they achieved mainstream success, people took it literally; the side effect too frequently was that they were dismissed or patronized in sexist ways by the press and male critical establishment. Their video for ‘Vacation’, with the band members in costumes and on water skis, became 80s iconography, but as fun as it was, the bright colorful imagery began to obscure the band’s growing sophistication in their musicianship and song craft. (It’s breathtaking to realize that The Go-Go’s, as they clearly explain in the film, went from not knowing how to play instruments to confidently strutting onto stadium stages in just a few years.)

Of course, beyond the novelty and design elements and even the pop compositions that have stood the test of time, we learn that this was a group of women who found refuge from the dissatisfactions of their pre-band lives. Woven into the story of a band on the rise is an equally compelling story of some far-flung souls finding each other and forming family. Among the best parts of the film are the interviews in which The Go-Go’s discuss who they were as children and teens before the band. We find out that Belinda was seemingly disregarded by parents who moved a lot and tried to repress her using fundamentalist Christianity; she’s poised for rebellion by 14, and the punk scene provides her a perceived gateway to freedom. Charlotte was a formal music student but says she felt like didn’t feel like she fit into the charged club band scene; her feelings of alienation leads her to getting ensnared by a longtime heroin habit she struggled to keep hidden. Jane, whose public image was upbeat and perky, movingly reveals that until recently, not a year has gone by when she didn’t think of ending her life, starting with those teen years. (I know she’s an atheist, but thank the Something she survived!) Kathy and Gina had bouts of insecurity and confusion, despite their powerful exteriors. (Side note: Gina’s well-timed cackles are one of the film’s great pleasures.)

In this way, the band has the roots of many rock and roll bands before them; disaffected youth who found their voice through shredding guitars and pounding drum kits. They were hungry to express themselves; they were primed to transcend their pasts. And if this story seems familiar from countless male band stories before, we are challenged to remember that these were women and that matters.

I remember seeing them after ‘We Got the Beat’ started to catch on; it was very much a ‘have you heard this?’ moment. Before it was released formally as a single, and way back before internet days, the only way you’d hear that addictive song was on the the Rodney Bingenheimer show on LA’s KROQ or people would pass you a taped copy. When Gina Schock begins that signature drum intro to ‘We Got the Beat’, it immediately re-arranges your heart rhythm. It’s so propulsive the band has you in their hands from the start, and it has to be one of rock history’s most memorable calling cards.

Early ‘We Got the Beat’ from the documentary Urgh! A Music War

‘The Go-Go’s’ gives you some rare footage from those early days, showing how the band worked hard to make a name for itself, and even to find a grouping of members that coalesced satisfactorily. Their energy was furious; this was a band who drove up to San Francisco to see The Sex Pistols. The Go-Go’s were not actually the only ‘girl band’ around at the time — I fondly remember The Heaters and there were a number of bands that were mixed-gender — but the punk scene, which eventually devolved into a lot of macho bluster, still was heavily male-oriented. You can’t underestimate how much perseverance it must have taken to get heard above the din and beer bottles.

I was fortunate to see this combination of scrappy determination and group self-discovery early in their career at The Whiskey. Their energy was electric; Belinda grabbed the mic with magnetic urgency, and the band pogoed like the floor was on fire. Seeing them close-up also gave a sense of their vulnerability; I saw this most vividly when at the end of their Whiskey set, The Go-Go’s played a cover of ‘Money.’ I was delighted to see them put their spin on a familiar song. However, what I wasn’t ready for was that during the song, members of the audience threw actual money at them, and in ‘punk’ fashion, it wasn’t dollar bills, it was coins, and it wasn’t a gentle tossing onto the stage, it involved pelting the women with quarters. It was so disturbing to see them try to get through the song while dodging or getting hit by dudes throwing small pieces of metal at them, but damn if they didn’t play all the way through. And when they were done, before they left the stage, they bent over and picked up those quarters and took them with them. It’s symbolic of not just their need at the time, but how much they overcame; in just a few years, Rolling Stone would be calling them ‘rich bitches.’

Once their days at The Masque and other clubs are shown in a way that not only establishes the roots of The Go-Go’s but pays some important due to the Hollywood punk scene. We were vampires who had the ability to withstand sunshine and Santa Anas. ‘The Go-Go’s’ then moves quickly through their rising successes. Because the film has to cover so much territory in this heady whirlwind, and there are so many threads to weave, it moves at a pace that occasionally sacrifices timeline clarity. (The interstitial animation in the film is in smart sync with the band’s style, but I wished it had also been more practically employed to help keep track of The Go-Go’s rise and fall and rise.)

Thankfully the anecdotal detours the film takes provide a respite from the more frenzied moments and it quiets so we can hear absorbing, very human tales of friendship, hurt, and betrayal. Director Alison Ellwood, whose clarity about the band’s significance is key, makes the wise decision to include interviews with original members Bello and Olavarria who left or were left after creative differences with the band. Margot seems to carry a particular integrity in her choices to reject the growing pop and potentially commercial direction the rest of the group members were comfortable moving into; she stood firm in the original punk ethos that rejected the corporate exploitation of artists. Though she was denied fame and riches, she wasn’t exactly wrong about what would eventually happen to the band, at least for a while. But the film is even-handed and presents the dilemma the other band members faced; if you’re playing around town hoping for a record deal so your work gets heard, do you turn down that deal when it starts getting waved in your face? Adding to the complexity, Bello and Olavarria are both Latinx, and once they leave the band, the remaining line-up appears all-white. Did that play any part in the way 80s America embraced them? We’ll never know but it casts a shadowy pall.

When we see how the band later collapses in a blur of infighting, confusion and monetary inequity, it’s conflicting for us in the audience. Had Olavarria stayed in the band, the fights down the line would have been even more pronounced as their first album’s producer, Richard Gottehrer, tells the band to slow down so the songs can be more cleanly heard as pop, and if that never happened, we might not have had the gorgeousness of an album that is ‘Beauty and the Beat.’

I listened to the album again recently; every track has a hook, every track could have been a hit single. Still, when Bello and Olivarria voice pain about how they were wronged you sense layers of pain that must have hurt, healed and been re-injured for years. (I wouldn’t mind seeing a feature dramatic film centered on Margot.) These scenes and the inclusion of the story of original manager Ginger Canzoneri in her own words ground the film in the genre of nonfiction filmmaking in ways that go beyond anything that might seem like a rehashing of promotional material or the earlier VH1-‘Behind the Music’ hour on the band.

Seeing women of their sixties look back at their twenty-something selves with a sense of self-compassion and forgiveness, but also with a realization that even immature actions can have lasting consequences, has remarkable resonance. Without resorting to phony piousness, we get an understanding of ambitious (or drug-fueled) decisions made that can’t be undone, and who of us among their contemporaries doesn’t look back trying to reconcile similar feelings?

At the same time, the band members are also frank and clear-headed that they felt a certain creative instinct leading them to be open to making pop music, albeit pop music that retained a punk and rock muscularity. It’s fascinating to consider whether The Go-Go’s would have risen to such heights and inspired a lot of young women to see new possibilities for themselves without these adjustments. Whatever the ambivalences, the group pushed on. At a time when big rock tours were headlined by men, and a ubiquitous animated ‘Moonman’ was brandishing MTV’s logo, The Go-Go’s stomped stilettoes and Doc Martens onto well-traversed music stages and planted a flag for something different.

But we only got those Go-Go’s for a little while. They may have climbed the heights of the charts, but the big shadows of their pasts begin to sabotage their extraordinary present. They became more unified in their pursuit of drugs to quell their anxiety at life in such rarefied air. To summarize Kathy’s remembrance (she’s particularly incisive) they were maturing as musicians but being taken down by their immature lack of effective communication skills. That’s a pretty startling realization: could they have continued to be a successful band longer if they would have just hired a traveling therapist? (See also: Metallica, The Smiths, etc.) The net benefit would have been significant, for them and their fans, but instead they became a comet whose tail left lots of glitter even as its streak burned out.

While they flared (in their original run, while they were still creating albums of new material), there’s much to celebrate, and this is where I wish the film could have taken a deeper dive. Belinda Carlisle was a great and original frontwoman. Looking tasteful and serene today, it’s fun to see her in the late seventies wearing Hefty bags and matching black eyeliner. Carlisle does offer accurate observations about the punk scene, and some demure, now zen-like quips about her ‘ego’ and its role in the group’s travails (she certainly wouldn’t be the first lead singer to have been seduced by fame; that said, can you blame some of us if we wanted a little about her 80s brief relationship with Dodger Mike Marshall? Hint: read her memoir ‘Lips Unsealed.’)

While it certainly wouldn’t have been appropriate for her to dominate the film, we could have used more about why she was not only special in the band, but had a second meteoric trajectory as a solo artist. Once a high school cheerleader with goth depressive tendencies, Carlisle had and still has a captivating, contradictory charisma. She somehow stage-seduced both straight boys and gay boys. I taught at a young women’s school at the time, and I can attest she had a haircut-and-earring influence different from Madonna’s (or can we say, that Madonna borrowed a bit from?) I used to hold a classroom contest sometimes on Fridays and would put on a Go-Go’s track and say, “Do the Belinda!” a reference to her signature dance moves of the time, which involved swinging arms and a tricky head bop (you can see it in the ‘Head Over Heels’ video and really any concert footage of the band) and oh how those dangling earrings swung with swagger.

Belinda has very often been dismissed by purists and those who still held some fraction of punk hope because when she went solo, she doubled down on the pop sheen. She had a good run of hit singles, and many people, myself included, found a lot to like on her solo albums. She was both celebrated and punished for embracing a more ‘glamorous’ and commercially polished look. Actually, I always thought the look she was going for had more to do with a love of classic movies and pop siren styles of the past, black turtlenecks and head scarfs recalling Audrey Hepburn, Anouk Aimee and film’s French new wave. But that kind of looking back and reinterpreting of looks is in her core. The style she was invoking was of a piece of the bubbly retro thrift store aesthetic the Go-Go’s used as their version of rock band attire. (Punk-use-of retro-girl-group-movie-images turns into pop-music-graphic-design-style turned into mass-market-off-the-rack at Contempo Casuals.) For a girl from the Valley who easily could have descended into a life of silent rage, Carlisle not only miraculously survived the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, she’s left her mark.

And the band’s musicality deserves a little more detailed exploration as well (this is as good time as any to say that a major and outrageous reminder the film leaves us with is that The Go-Go’s have been denied a place in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an indicator for all of us about how long patronizing and vengeful dismissals of women can stick.) Jane Wiedlin was an equal stage partner, trading riffs and harmonies that were an essential pairing with Carlisle; as soon as the band broke, you missed them together. She also had major chops as a songwriter, which we saw in her solo and later career — check out her song ‘Blue Kiss’ — and along with Caffey, wrote sterling, pithy rock-pop gems. (Frankly, the distinction between the genres disappeared with The Go-Go’s.) Brian Wilson is among their fans. Wiedlin’s subsequent wide range of talents is dazzling— acting, voiceover, astute commentary and superhero of the Planet Joie De Vivre.

Wiedlin wrote well with Caffey. Given what we hear about Caffey’s heroin use, it’s miraculous that her prodigious talent could rise above as often as it did. Caffey’s name is co-writer on track after track; her instinctive and trained knowledge of music composition turned into something uncanny. Just listen to the team’s ‘Turn to You’ (about another baseball romance, Caffey’s with Bob Welch) and watch the subversive video the band made to see how she could seamlessly shift rhythms and tempos in a 3-minute song.

The Go-Go’s taste for subversion wasn’t just relegated to their visuals. For years, boys and men incorporated lyrics about cars and the open road; it’s a Springsteen signature. With cuts like ‘Automatic’, ‘Skidmarks on My Heart’, ‘Kissing Asphalt’, ‘Speeding’, ‘This Town’, ‘Stuck in My Car’ and of course the band’s iconic visuals for ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’, The Go-Go’s stole the ‘car song’ away from men and gave it their own LA specific traffic-and-freeway spin. (That alone should get them into that Hall of Fame.) Gina Schock, whose stuttering, bedrock rhythms kept the band tight and timeless, became the songwriter she was meant to be almost out of necessity; a major factor in the band’s tensions was the way ‘songwriting’ was defined and who benefited from it financially. When Schock (who along the way had to have heart surgery) began to see the band fizzle, she heroically carved out a niche for herself with more songwriting and a new band. (The way the rest of the band took Schock out for a potential ‘last hurrah’ weekend is a hilarious anecdote.)

Kathy Valentine was already a major figure in the LA scene as part of the heralded band The Textones, and her chops were essential in moving them forward. The other Go-Go’s felt a click when she joined them, though it was at a heartbreaking cost to Margot; Valentine has a way with a metaphor, and referencing this time, she talks about feeling like ‘the other woman.’ I remember feeling so intrigued by her, as though she was happy to join the band’s debauched hijinx and promo photos, but she had secrets about what she was observing you’d love to know.

You know you’re talking about a band here, but in the end, with their many profitable reunion summer tours, you’re also seeing the complicated origins of a commercial entity, with all the human costs associated with business start-ups. In the end, the film is a coming-of-age story that mirrors the often painful epiphanies in their best songs.

That’s why ‘The Go-Gos’, directed skillfully by Ellwood, instantly jumps into the category of great rock music documentaries and builds as much dramatic tension and suspense as a fictional narrative feature. It’s got a classic structure, but the natural details of their experience speak to feminist questions that aren’t so classic. From just an audience viewpoint, it’s refreshing to see an epic drama played out with the primary cast being made up of very unique, complex women who interact with a cocktail glass filled with both ruthlessness and tenderness.

The film ‘The Go-Go’s’ is well-structured and tasteful, though towards the end, a little less reserve might have served it better. Since we know The Go-Gos eventually reunited, the time spent on the prolonged breakup makes us want to have an equally long build in the upward direction that would connect the dots from break-up to today. (We get brief reunion tour footage and a glimpse of how the band’s music formed the Broadway show ‘Head Over Heels’, and while the footage is festive, it seems rushed and perfunctory, as though a ‘wrap-it-up’ clock is ticking.) We don’t need to ‘rah-rah’ towards a happy ending; in fact, the examination of some key questions could have really deepened the film further.

What were the real calculations and fence-mending discussions that overcame their distrust and acrimony to achieve their tenuous and hard-won unity today? Was it for primarily financial reasons and greater ownership of their business, or did personal longing or even recovery from rock-and-roll PTSD play a part? Does our current time of reckoning on so many social issues add to their insights on how co-founder Olavarria, Bello and Canzoneri were treated and the division it caused in the LA punk scene? How did they manage sobriety during the periods when their careers felt so diminished? What do the Go-Go’s respond to in women musicians today? Can we hear more about the sexual fluidity in the band, and how their LGBTQ audience and queer kistch interacted and contributed to their success? Could we have a few more music historians and critics talk about the juxtaposing sunshine of their music and the rain clouds of their lyrics, and could we see a wider context of some of the other female bands that emerged from the period or soon after? (The Bangles come to mind; Susannah Hoffs was even a songwriter on a Go-Go’s album.)

And perhaps this would have tread too close to rock doc cliche, but I would have loved a triumphant closing montage where we saw glimpses of the many rock and riot-grrrl bands they inspired (to be clear, there is brief sharp and loving commentary from Bikini Kills’ frontwoman, the great Kathleen Hanna). I’d thrill to see interviews with how today’s young women react to these groundbreakers. Maybe even some interviews with those longtime Go-Go fans who show up summer after summer for their tours? Perhaps this would push the band to speak more about what’s it like to be a rock-and-roll female elder. I’m quibbling here, and I understand the lean aesthetic Ellwood may have wanted, but I’m not sure what it is in film financing contracts or documentary trends or whatever it is that says a pop culture nonfiction film needs to fit into a 100-minute running time. If ever there was an exception to those kinds of constraints, it should have been for these women who broke so many constraints before. (Of course, we Go-Go fans would barely be satisfied if their story was told in a ten-part series. It sure would be ‘binge-worthy.’)

You go into the Go-Go’s doc for the affection and nostalgia, but you come out with a rich film about human beings trying to negotiate talent, business, friendship, anger and drive. It presents them all with a sense of minimal apology. This is just how we thought at the time, and this is what we did. We recognize it caused pain. We were hurting ourselves. That’s how it was, and this is who we are today.

All of these are things you’ve seen in rock docs about men, but it does matter that this time the beautiful faces on screen are those of all-too-rare women who scaled rock music’s most challenging heights. Allison Ellwood’s ‘The Go-Go’s’ does a mighty service by showing all the hard work in that climb, but even a film as good as this can’t quite explain the mystery of their alchemy. As each of the members says at some point in the film, though now with a bit of the shrug of a doyenne, ‘Somehow we have magic together.’

These particular beloved, unpredictable, stylish, trailblazing, addicted, infuriating, generous, artistic, self-harming, self-healing gifted women found a beat as they danced down sunset boulevards, and it never let them go.

subversive gender bending in the Turn to You video, directed by Mary Lambert. Look for the young and ubiquitous Rob Lowe
Do the Belinda!
Their new song ‘Club Zero’ is full of power

Film, Music, Peak TV, Diversity— Tom Cendejas is sitting on a sofa and unwrapping Pop Culture with a Latino eye, one husk at a time. tomcend@gmail.com

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