They wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and became the first all-woman band to record a debut number one album. Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Kathy Valentine are the Go-Go’s. And over the course of Alison Ellwood’s 97-minute documentary The Go-Go’s she chronicles their rise and fall, and their unquestionable importance.
Ellwood, acclaimed director of American Jihad (2017), initially delineates the group with the punk ethos of the late-70’s in Los Angeles. The first embers of DYI music, punk’s greatest heroes in some cases knew little about classical theory, vocal technique, or even musicianship. Many were self-taught. The initial line-up of the famed-girl band relied on that tradition. Punk offered freedom. It allowed them to be raw, which with the glam-70’s transitioning into the Valley Girl-80’s probably seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The initial lineup: which formed after some members witnessed the Sex Pistols’ infamous final show in Los Angeles, was composed of Carlisle, Wiedlin, Elissa Bello, and Margot Olavarria. That Sex Pistols gig, where the group couldn’t give half a toss and broke up the next day, serves as an early metaphor for the group, in fact. Nevertheless, whenever each member is introduced on screen, they’re preceded with a visual of a childhood photo of them and a little personal exposition of why they were attracted to the punk scene. I loved these brief segments, and often they’re too brief. Because Ellwood’s documentary isn’t necessarily about the individual members of the group, but the symbolism and dynamics experienced as a part of the band.
To these ends, we witness the band grow, but rarely as individuals—which gives The Go-Go’s a slightly impersonal touch. Even while Ellwood utilizes some vault worthy material, like footage and audio of their earliest live performances and Polaroids from them on the road. Throughout the documentary, one definitely hears the breath of their sound rounding into form. They go from self-taught novices to touring with The Specials and Madness across the UK, all the while, fighting against misogynists and white nationalists. The group over this span also replace Bello and Olavarria with Schock on drums and Caffey on lead guitar, while adding Kathy Valentine on bass to arrive at the classic lineup, while writing the hits that would jettison them into super stardom. The sum total, combines the importance of the group in terms of empowerment, women pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and making the music they want to make.
And often, as with any music doc, the music is the biggest star, which certainly exemplifies Ellwood’s film. She employs the multi-tracks of songs like “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Vacation,” which demonstrate the tightness and hookiness of the group’s sound: from their harmonies to their riffs.
The Go-Go’s shows the group’s fall, from disintegrating band dynamics, disputes about publishing rights, and rampant drug use that caused individual members to drift apart and discard the figures who helped them most, like longtime manager Ginger Canzoneri. Nevertheless, time and again, their bond of empowering each other brings them back together. Their importance to generations of bands that came after like Bikini Kill (Kathleen Hanna is featured in the doc) is well assured, even if Ellwood doesn’t pull more interviews from groups like Bananarama or The Bangles, and while The Go-Go’s take sideswipes at their predecessors like The Runaways. Nevertheless, we’re left questioning why the group isn’t in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, which seems to be the point of the documentary in the latter portions. In any case, The Go-Go’s sometimes lacks a personal touch, and too often waltzes through as a by-the-numbers music documentary, but certainly serves as a monument to a seminal group.