Director: Alison Ellwood
Featuring: Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlin
Words – Natalie Mills
“People automatically assume that we were probably put together by some guy, but we did it all ourselves.”
The Go-Go’s made history as the first all-female group to write their own songs, play their own instruments, and release a No. 1 album.
This compelling documentary is a collage of archive footage, nostalgia-triggering 80s photos, and individual interviews with all involved. You see The Go-Go’s start as a bunch of misfits in the L.A. punk scene; now they laugh that it didn’t matter whether you could play your instruments – “if you were terrible you were cooler”.
They reminisce about playing at The Masque – a small punk rock club in Hollywood – and joke about their three-song set, “two of those were the same song”.
It’s the angry, punk rock Go-Go’s rather than the poppier, girlier incarnation most fans know and love that really excites here. The idea of starting an all-girl group in a male-dominated punk scene, rocking the no-shits-given attitude of The Eyes’ “Don’t Talk to Me” is thrilling. Go-Go’s the 80s pop group seemed a mile away from the punks “people used to cross the street” from, but their biggest crowd-pleaser at gigs “We Got The Beat” was undoubtedly a pop song, so change was on the cards.
After a tour with Madness and The Specials in London (and having boyfriends in both), and getting some serious hate from The National Front, they garnered a large volume of interest. Then with a change of bassist and the hit single “Our Lips Are Sealed”, they finally got signed.
All seems rosy for a while; you see how fun it was creating videos for MTV, and hear how Sting brought them champagne as they overtook The Police in the album charts. It was a hectic schedule of photoshoots, continual gigs and band practice; you start to see the cracks in their exhaustion from touring and the “difficult” second album. Add to this, Charlotte (the writer of their hits), started to isolate herself. We learn that she was fighting a heroin addiction.
Despite the water-skiing in tutus of the “Vacation” video, being a Go-Go gets progressively bleak, and by the third album, they’re falling out. Belinda and Gina feel unappreciated in that they don’t get paid as much as songwriters Charlotte and Jane, while Jane never forgets being told – “What makes you think you’re good enough to sing a song?”.
After a brief stint without Jane, Charlotte and Belinda break up the band, citing, “She’s the voice and I write the hits”. Some of the 5 band members don’t speak for years. It gets very toxic.
Members describe being in The Go-Go’s like being “each other’s best friends and also each other’s worst enemies”, and also “fucking sisters who stab each other in the back”. Ellwood’s interviews with the “classic” quintet show a complex, not entirely wholesome mix of personalities. There’s cruelty behind the 80s sweetness, intense friendships breaking under the pressure to make it big.
We also hear from original bassist Margot (dumped for hating the move from punk to pop) and their manager Ginger (dumped in favour of a corporate, mostly male agency), who comments “anyone with any integrity wouldn’t stick around”. The more they strayed from their roots, the further you stray from The Go-Go’s.
This is undeniably a captivating documentary, they’re having such a great time it’s impossible not to want to be in their gang.
Photos of them as “The Clown Family”, sniffing lines of cocaine (there are a LOT of drugs) and giving birth to Jane, all feel bittersweet. Stories about them unsuccessfully trying to get arrested in a water fountain for a video, and Charlotte being kicked out of Ozzy’s dressing room, would be hilarious if not for also feeling kind of sad.
The 80s nostalgia and girly, coke-fuelled sleepover vibe of The Go-Go’s may be particularly enjoyed by fans of the hit-series GLOW, but there’s more than that here – a genuine lesson in music history.
Director Alison Ellwood’s standout documentary lays bare the story of the pioneering New Wave band, from their origins in the 70s punk scene, to selling out arenas with their upbeat pop, to inevitable disintegration over drugs, artistic differences and clashing egos.
With its International Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020, this documentary is due for release later this year.