The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For too long, the story of the Go-Go’s was a cautionary tale. A new documentary turns it into a triumph.

Guitarist Jane Wiedlin and singer Belinda Carlisle perform at a concert during the early years of the Go-Go’s. (Melanie Nissen/Showtime)
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Documentaries are doing a bang-up job lately of helping women reclaim their stories. Earlier this year, Nanette Burstein’s absorbing four-part Hulu docuseries “Hillary” turned a trove of unseen 2016 campaign footage into a surprisingly frank rumination on the life and career of Hillary Clinton, this time viewed through the prism of the sexist double standards that dogged her the entire way.

Nina Simone, Jane Fonda, Joan Rivers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Lorena Bobbitt — thoughtful documentaries about each have helped push the biographical format well past its standard of reverent clip jobs, perceiving their subjects in a more truthful and encompassing light. Time and context are given the opportunity to overcome old hype and headlines.

In the pop-music world, no group of women could be more deserving of a fresh and fair shake than the Go-Go’s, whose success/implosion story in the MTV era still resonates with anyone who loved them in the 1980s, as well as the fans who’ve come along since.

Emerging from a Los Angeles punk scene that was more giddy than gritty, these five musicians — Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin — remain the only all-female rock act to write and play their own songs on a debut album (1981’s “Beauty and the Beat”) that reached No. 1 on the sales charts. There was no man standing behind the curtain calling the shots, no Svengali.

“People automatically assume that we were probably put together by some guy, but we did it ourselves,” Carlisle observes at the beginning of filmmaker Alison Ellwood’s fast and fantastic documentary, “The Go-Go’s,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and makes its TV debut Friday on Showtime.

The film strikes a buoyant balance of shared memories and lingering hurts among close friends. The Go-Go’s have rehashed their wild tales countless times (an episode of VH1’s rockumentary series “Behind the Music” from 20 years ago stands out for its spillage; Carlisle and Valentine have each written a memoir), but what’s new this time is all about the vantage point. The Go-Go’s spent their heyday rolling their eyes at any suggestion of feminist strides; clip after clip of media interviews at the time show them emphasizing their frivolous, party-girl image, claiming they just wanted to play their music and make lots of money.

Today, as women in their 60s, there has been a reckoning with the man-made barriers they stared down 40 years ago. They’re still a little mad about it, and rightly so. This is where Ellwood’s approach works splendidly as a smart antidote to the rockumentary genre.

There are two stories to tell here: One is the usual rise and fall (and rebirth) of a rock band, replete with substance abuse, bruised egos and money squabbles. The other story, existing just beneath the surface, is about five women who were under extreme pressure to make more hits and pretend that the discriminatory obstacles in front of them were all just fun and games. Although “The Go-Go’s” works marvelously as a scrapbook that will surely delight the viewer who wants to remember the catchy songs and saucy attitudes, it’s also the first time that the band’s story has been rendered as a cultural triumph instead of a cautionary tale.

The story itself is quite a rocket ride (fueled by a lot of booze and blow), beginning in glad rags and garbage bags in clubs along Sunset Strip, circa 1978. Wiedlin, the band's ace lyricist, opens up about her suicidal tendencies as a teen (and, much later, her diagnosis of bipolar disorder). The punk scene's DIY ethic all but rescued her from a sense of isolation.

Wiedlin and her friend Margot Olavarria decided to start an all-girl band. They invited Carlisle — the oldest of seven kids in a strict San Fernando Valley household who also found her escape in the punk scene — to join as singer. Joined by Elissa Bello on drums, the Go-Go’s debuted at a club called the Masque with a complete repertoire of two songs, which they played badly. “If you were terrible, you were cooler,” Carlisle says. “And anybody could do whatever they wanted. It was total freedom.”

Random luck and determination followed. A classically trained pianist and songwriter, Charlotte Caffey, left her own punk band to join the Go-Go’s. By 1979, the band found a devoted manager, Ginger Canzoneri. “I love communities of women,” Canzoneri says in the film. “This band caught my interest for that reason.” The Go-Go’s dumped Bello in favor of Gina Schock, a fierce drummer from Baltimore who drove to L.A. “with $2,000 and two grams of coke” and supplied the beat that tightened the band’s sound. “I was determined to whip them into shape,” Schock says.

A British ska band called the Specials caught the Go-Go’s act and invited the band to open for them on a 1980 tour in England. Such was Canzoneri’s devotion to her clients that she hocked her jewelry and sold her car to fund the trip. Previous iterations of the Go-Go’s story have cast this as an adventurous launching point. At the shows, however, the band faced crowds of skinheads who spit at them, threw bottles and demanded to see their breasts.

“They hated us,” Wiedlin says. “First of all, we were not ska, so what the hell were we doing opening for these ska bands? Second of all, we were Americans, and third of all — maybe worst of all — we were chicks.”

They returned to L.A. with all kinds of buzz, but no record labels would sign them. Miles Copeland, who managed his brother’s hit band, the Police, signed the Go-Go’s to his boutique label, I.R.S. Records. Olavarria, punk to the bone, started to chafe at the perkier, janglier sound that emerged with songs like “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat,” both of which became Top 40 and MTV breakout hits.

“It was the sense of being packaged into a product — less about art and more about money,” Olavarria says, so she left. She was replaced by Kathy Valentine, a guitarist from an Austin band called the Textones, who taught herself to play bass over a manic weekend and “basically learned all their songs on a coke binge.”

“The Go-Go’s” benefits enormously from its determination to interview Olavarria and others who were left eating the band’s dust. The heady success of “Beauty and the Beat” put the band on fame’s brutal treadmill. I.R.S. agitated for a follow-up album, while Wiedlin and Caffey (who was by now secretly nursing a heroin addiction) struggled to write more songs. They were rescued by Valentine’s offering of “Vacation,” a song she’d recorded with her old band.

After the second album and a grueling world tour, the bloom began to fade. Canzoneri was thrown overboard for a new executive management team — “All men, not that that mattered,” she recalls, with clear sadness. (Remorse over that decision is shared by the band members, belatedly.) The Go-Go’s fought over money after Schock saw the size of Caffey’s and Wiedlin’s royalty checks for songwriting. Carlisle, on the verge of a successful solo career, says she tuned out.

As soon as they became famous, the Go-Go’s seemed fated to fold. In their fouled atmosphere and deepest addictions, the women managed to make what many believe to be their best album — 1984’s “Talk Show.”

“There are people who really love that album, but I can’t even listen to it,” Wiedlin says.

They were making their fans happy by doing what they loved, yet the Go-Go’s were secretly miserable. All these decades later, it’s heartbreaking to see that some spots are still sore.

The band officially dissolved in 1985. They've reunited frequently since the 1990s for tours, released a fourth album ("God Bless the Go-Go's") in 2001 and saw their songs interpreted for a Broadway musical in 2018. They've been back together and simpatico far longer than they were ever apart, yet people still tend to speak of the Go-Go's in the past tense — as if the breakup and the bickering make a better story than the music. What Ellwood's film restores, to an admirable degree, is the power that Go-Go's fans drew from the band.

Kathleen Hanna, who fronted the ’90s punk band Bikini Kill, recalls going to a Go-Go’s concert in 1982, when she was 14: “As a young girl, going into a space where women own the stage, and own it unapologetically, like they were born to be there — to me it represented a moment of possibility.”

I also remember the thrill of seeing the Go-Go’s in concert when I was in high school. I adored the music and how it made me feel, but more than that, I loved the joyful confidence it brought out in the girls around me — an entirely different response from their primal swoons for Duran Duran. The cruelest boys at our school (Led Zeppelin or die) were already effective misogynists and homophobes, not at all afraid to belittle the Go-Go’s and anyone who listened to them.

I can’t help but sense a similar tinge of disrespect in the glaring fact that the band still hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But, as the Go-Go’s taught us way back when: Can’t stop the world; why let it stop you?

The Go-Go’s (98 minutes) premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

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