This review originally ran in January as part of our Sundance Film Festival 2020 coverage.
Even if you’ve seen the footage before, in L.A. punk docs and VH-1 specials, it’s still thrilling to watch: Five women on stage, their outfits resembling a day-glo mix of thrift-store chic and a temper tantrum’s aftermath, two different kinds of eyeshadow and smeared streaks of rouge fighting for dominance, bashing out crude anthems at the Masque Club. “They played three songs, and two of them were the same song,” one witness remembers about that gig. They might be just another band who saw the Germs or the Weirdos or any of the first wave of those Decline of Western Civilization-era groups and decided they, too, could do it themselves. But that heavily mascaraed cherubic face shrieking into the microphone looks awfully familiar. So does the guitar player with the dark pixie cut. It’s Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin. This is the Go-Go’s 1.0.
It helps to remember that the quintet who’d go on to be the first all-female band to play their own instruments, write their own songs and have a Number One album started out in the Los Angeles punk scene — it gave them the initial burst of energy and sense of defiance that previews what would come later. And even though two of their key members hailed out from outside the Golden State, they were always such a Southern California group, with a sunny disposition that sweetened an underlying snarl in their music. The Go-Go’s gives them a long overdue early-demos-to-late-act-reunions, famous-testimonials-and-faded-concert-footage music documentary; anyone who still thinks they’re just a footnote in ’80s music history lessons or, worse, ladies-who-rock (ugh) round-ups will come away properly schooled. The fact that this portrait repeats the aforementioned groundbreaking distinction no less than a half dozen times over the course of 97 minutes (and then highlights it again in an end-credits disclaimer, just in case you missed it) doesn’t make the accomplishment any less impressive. The doc’s goal: Don’t think of the Go-Go’s as a bit of Reagan-era nostalgia, the musical equivalent of a Rubik’s cube. Think of them as a first-tier, kick-ass rock group, period, full stop, the end. Mission accomplished.
Having tackled stories of massively successful, mercurial-to-a-fault bands before (she helmed The History of the Eagles), director Alison Ellwood is in her comfort zone here — the Go-Go’s were nothing if not a dysfunctional, drug-dabbling, death-defying fivesome with their share of inter-organizational strife. Yet this particular mix of players somehow worked perfectly together even when they were tearing each other apart, which the doc underlines every chance it gets. You get the set-up: Carlisle and Wiedlin are drawn to the punk scene and decide to start a band. They recruit a drummer (Elissa Bello), a bass player (Margot Olavarria) and, after a handful of gigs, Charlotte Caffey as a second guitarist. She’s also a songwriter. Baltimore native Gina Schock joins the mix to provide the backbeat after Bello leaves (she and Wiedlin also briefly date), and ups their game substantially. A tour of Britain with ska bands Madness and the Specials strengthens their bond.
One night, Caffey is watching The Twilight Zone and suddenly comes up with a melody. She takes it to the band, and boom: “We Got the Beat” is born. Stiff Records makes it a single, the group returns to L.A. as conquering heroes, Specials frontman Terry Hall inspires a lovelorn Wiedlin to write “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and rough edges get slightly sanded down. When Olavarria gets sick before a New Year’s Eve gig, Texas transplant Kathy Valentine learns all the bass lines to their songs over a three-day coke binge. The Beauty and the Beat lineup now being complete, they begin working on their first album for Miles Copeland’s IRS label. Meanwhile, some rough beast named MTV is slouching towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born.
The Go-Go’s gives us all of this in one big rush of Xeroxed-poster montages, grainy footage, interviews with all of the band members and the occasional animated aside. The specter of music-industry sexism looms over everything, from glaring, leering skinheads yelling “show us your tits” to record executives dismissing the idea of an all-female band sans a male Svengali altogether. (“Best of luck with your enterprising girl band!” chirps one rejection letter. As for the headline on this Rolling Stone cover: a belated and official “we’re sorry about that.”) By the time the “We Got the Beat” music video finds them splashing the Beverly Hilton Hotel’s fountain, you have a good idea of the odds they’re up against. Then all hell breaks loose. As for the group, they find themselves dealing with the beginnings of debilitating drug habits, the altitude sickness that accompanies a rapid meteoric rise, pressure to follow up on their hit debut and early warnings that financial disputes over publishing will factor into their future.
You know the rest, even if you think you don’t — The Go-Go’s proves that there’s a standard template for rock-band disintegration, and that not even five ladies wandering around L.A. in their finest Vacation-video tutus are immune to it. You’ve seen this before, and in exactly this format. Ellwood isn’t out to mess with the basic music-doc rulebook, and simply plows through their arc, individually and collectively, one clip and quip at a time. Luckily, the band’s story doesn’t need more than that; their rise-fall-reunite narrative has enough drama along the way to witnessing them working on a new song (the chorus: “Zero fucks/give-ennnn”), and enough candor to justify the just-the-facts-ma’am approach. You wish the thing itself popped more, but given how much the subjects themselves popped, you’re simply glad to get this much insight into what happened, when and why.