The Go-Go's Reaffirm Their Place in Rock History in New Documentary

The Go-Go's Reaffirm Their Place in Rock History in New Documentary
Image:Paul Natkin courtesy Showtime PR

Few things in life are certain, but as sure as the sun shines, you can count on the seminal all-women band the Go-Go’s to get back together after breaking up and to keep sharing the fascinating story of their inception and continued existence. In addition to their music, a crucial part of Go-Go’s history is the telling of Go-Go’s history. There was the sensational 1997 episode of VH1’s music documentary series Behind the Music, and both lead singer Belinda Carlisle and bassist Kathy Valentine have written fabulously entertaining memoirs (2010’s Lips Unsealed and this year’s All I Ever Wanted, respectively).

And now, there is a new chapter in the telling of Go-Go’s history, a documentary simply titled The Go-Go’s that premiered at Sundance this year and airs Friday on Showtime, in which all five core band members recount their rise from the ’70s L.A. punk scene to ruling pop airwaves in the ’80s.

“We get overlooked and dismissed a lot in terms of our part in pop culture and music, and I felt like this would be a way of taking matters into our own hands,” Valentine explained to Jezebel by phone this week. The group, in fact, started the documentary process by reaching out to director Alison Ellwood (American Jihad, History of the Eagles). Together, they discussed what a feature might look like about the first all-women band to play and write their own material to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

Ellwood recalled members of the band being “a little gun-shy” and requiring convincing once the conversations started. “[Drummer Gina Schock] was pushing for it, but I know that I was feeling a little trepidation because I was remembering the Behind the Music [in which] all they wanted to talk about was the disagreements and the fight and who cares,” guitarist Charlotte Caffey told me by phone. “If you think about people being married for decades, this is five people that have been basically married for decades. You’re going to have your fights. That’s not the most interesting thing about this band.”

It was a complete bunch of freaks and it was great. We had the time of our lives.

Ellwood hadn’t seen that Behind the Music episode when she began her interviews with the band, she said. However: “I knew what their issues with it were. It was too salacious. It was all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and not about their music or their personal triumphs and struggles.”

And so with The Go-Go’s, Ellwood opted to put the music front and center. While Caffey had been trained in classic piano in college, many of her bandmates had not and early on, took full advantage of punk’s ethos that required no particular aptitude for music in order to play it.

“The whole scene was about self-expression, no rules, anything goes, everyone’s welcome,” said Caffey on punk. “It was a complete bunch of freaks, and it was great. We had the time of our lives.”

“To me, the epitome of rock and roll remains organically coming together—the right people at the right time,” said Valentine. Unlike other successful, female-fronted bands at the time like the Runaways, the Go-Go’s had no Svengali figure that assembled and guided them.

By the time they recorded their smash debut, 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, though, they’d gotten the hang of playing. The album, buoyed by pop confections “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed,” represented a shift in their sound: a clearer, slowed-down, cleaned-up Go-Go’s that took some getting used to for members like Carlisle and Valentine. In the time between forming and recording their debut, the band had effectively pushed out two members (original drummer Elissa Bello was replaced by Schock and Valentine took over for bassist Margot Olavarria), a staffing change that is presented in the documentary unsparingly. The band did what they thought was best for the band and the immense success that followed seemed to justify the means, though not without hurt feelings on the part of Bello and Olavarria, who both also appear in the doc.

Ellwood said the band requested that two subjects be off-limits: lawsuits band members have filed against each other during their now more than 40-year on-again-off-again history and an infamous VHS tape that circulated on the bootleg market, which was filmed during a debauched night of partying. In the tape, an inebriated Valentine and Carlisle attempt to get an also inebriated tech to masturbate on camera. He eventually passes out and a drum roadie penetrates him with a sex toy. In All I Ever Wanted, Valentine calls the incident “as ugly and pointless as any cruelty is” and writes:

The regret I have about being there and being involved is eternal. Shame is like a tide. It recedes but always returns. Any deep reflection about how I could have participated in victimizing another person leaves me sobbing with humiliation. I’m humbled by the knowledge that moral bankruptcy existed within me that night and regardless of drugs and alcohol, it was inexcusable behavior. Some actions are unforgivable and the repercussions are infinite.

But just because The Go-Go’s doesn’t go there doesn’t mean it’s a rose-colored depiction of the group. “We’re like sisters,” guitarist Jane Wiedlin says at one point. “Yeah, like sisters that fuckin’ stab each other in the back.” The doc details the tension that ensued from the disparity in royalties among group members that came as a result of Caffey, Valentine, and guitarist Jane Wiedlin doing the lion’s share of the writing. Additionally, The Go-Go’s doesn’t shy away from discussions of the band’s drug use. Caffey had a heroin habit throughout the band’s initial run that she eventually kicked after returning from the largest show the Go-Go’s ever played, the 1985 Rock in Rio festival. Backstage, Caffey had gotten thrown out of Ozzy Osbourne’s dressing room.

“I was there having tons of fun, but this underlying thing was devastating me inside,” recalled Caffey of the band’s golden era. “I kept trying to control it, which is the one thing you can’t do.” Today, she is 35 years sober. Valentine is sober, as well. In Carlisle’s memoir, she wrote that she finally got sober in 2005.

Ellwood chose to focus on the Go-Go’s initial run, from 1978 to their disbandment in 1985. There’s some footage of the band discussing the 2018 Broadway musical Head Over Heels, in which their music was used, as well as recording their new single “Club Zero,” but the various breakups, reunions, and supposed farewells of the 35 intervening years aren’t much discussed for the sake of keeping a tight narrative arc and not devolving into a litany of she-said/she-saids.

The process of sharing their collective story and then watching it back proved ultimately healing.

“It made me so warm and fuzzy about my bandmates,” said Caffey.

“My hope was that we’d have something that celebrated the joyful times, the achievements, really capture the chemistry and camaraderie,” said Valentine. “What I didn’t expect was the strengthening of this bond. It’s been stretched to a silk thread, but it’s never broken. Even when I was out of the band [from 2013 to 2018], I couldn’t ever just walk away and not have it be a part of me. Forever, I’m connected with these women. What I didn’t expect was the level of forgiveness and healing that could still take place. There was something about seeing it together at Sundance that just affected all of us simultaneously on a very deep level. We went to the front of the theater after the screening for a Q&A. I’ll never forget it. Every time I think about it, it makes me start to choke up. We virtually fell into each other’s arms and just clung to each other. A lot melted away. A lot of old stuff.”

Valentine said that the Go-Go’s now keep a group text that they participate in multiple times a week (though since Carlisle lives in Thailand, she tends to be the least active). The band had planned on touring this summer, but due to the covid-19 pandemic, they had to postpone to next year. Caffey, for one, seems eager to get back out and rock.

“We’re these 60-year-old women with punk raging inside of us,” she said. “It’s just who we are.”

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