Review: ‘The Go-Go’s,’ starring Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine

August 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

The Go-Go’s in 1981 in “The Go-Go’s.” Pictured from left to right:  Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Charlotte Caffey and Belinda Carlisle. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Showtime)

 

“The Go-Go’s” 

Directed by Alison Ellwood

Culture Representation: This documentary about the Los Angeles-based rock band The Go-Go’s features interviews with an almost all-white group of people (and one black person) discussing the band, including former and current band members; former business colleagues of the band; and other people in the entertainment industry.

Culture Clash:  The Go-Go’s (an all-female band) battled against sexism, as well as internal band conflicts fueled by drugs and egos.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of Go-Go’s fans, this documentary will primarily appeal to people who like hearing first-hand stories about self-destructive rock stars, although the movie retreads most of the same territory as the Go-Go’s “Behind the Music” episode.

Jane Wiedlin and Belinda Carlisle in “The Go-Go’s” (Photo by Melanie Nissen/Showtime)

“The Go-Go’s” documentary film (directed by Alison Ellwood) recycles a lot of what the Go-Go’s revealed when they did an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” docuseries, and updates the band’s story to make what is essentially a campaign video to induct the Go-Go’s into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That doesn’t mean that the documentary isn’t good and that it isn’t enjoyable to watch. It just means that there’s almost nothing significant in the film that wasn’t already covered in the Go-Go’s 2001 “Behind the Music” episode and their updated 2012 “Behind the Music Remastered” episode. In fact, “The Go-Go’s” documentary film, which is about one hour longer than a “Behind the Music” episode, actually has a lot less information than the “Behind the Music Remastered” episode on the Go-Go’s.

What sets “The Go-Go’s” documentary apart from “Behind the Music” is that the documentary places more emphasis on the band’s punk roots, and there’s no bleeping out of curse words. The documentary, which is told in chronological order, spends so much time on the Go-Go’s history before the band got signed to a record deal, that it isn’t until about halfway through the film that it finally gets to the Go-Go’s getting signed and recording their first album.

Formed in 1978 in Los Angeles, the Go-Go’s have an origin story that’s very common with people who start punk bands: They started a band without knowing how to play instruments or write songs. The real attractions to punk music for bands and their fans were rule-breaking attitudes and forming their own communities of misfits and antisocial people. Being a true punk artist meant shunning corporate deals and mainstream acceptance, which is why many bands like the Go-Go’s that started out as punk could no longer claim to be truly punk once they started making pop music and having big hits.

As an all-female rock band, the Go-Go’s stood out from most of their peers in the punk scene. Lead singer Belinda Carlisle and rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin (who both grew up in the Los Angeles area) were two of the co-founding members who were part of the lineup that recorded the Go-Go’s groundbreaking 1981 hit album “Beauty and the Beat.”

Carlisle was a former high-school cheerleader who, even though she identified as a punk, still had “a prom queen” aura about her as lead singer of the Go-Go’s. Wiedlin’s pixie-ish voice and appearance might have made her seem innocent, but she says in the documentary (as she’s said in many other interviews) that she’s a self-described weirdo with “a lifelong history of depression,” including attempting suicide when she was 15. It was this dichotomy—squeaky-clean on the outside, rebellious/troubled on the inside—which defined who the Go-Go’s were to the public and who they really were in private.

In the documentary, Carlisle says that being an unpolished, sloppy musician who couldn’t play very well was almost like a badge of honor in the punk scene: “If you were terrible, you were cooler.” Wiedlin comments on what the Los Angeles punk scene was like at the time: “We hated our parents and society but supported each other.”

Margot Olavarria, who was the Go-Go’s original tough-talking bassist, adds: “It was a great sense of belonging.” Elissa Bello, who was the Go-Go’s original drummer, comments: “It was about feeling emotion and rage and you got to express it. And the rawer, the better.” (Olavarria was in the Go-Go’s “Behind the Music” episode, but Bello, who appears briefly in the documentary, was not.)

Lead guitarist/keyboardist Charlotte Caffey was also in the band’s original lineup before the Go-Go’s got signed to a record deal. Caffey (a classically trained pianist who learned to play guitar for the Go-Go’s) and Wiedlin (a self-taught musician) would turn out to be the chief songwriters of the band. The higher earnings that Caffey and Wiedlin received because of songwriting royalties caused huge rifts in the band later on, which resulted in the Go-Go’s breaking up and reuniting several times over the years. Caffey, who came from a privileged background in the entertainment business (her father was a TV director), describes herself as an introverted music nerd who was thrilled to join the Go-Go’s, since she was eager to be a part of the L.A. punk scene.

Overseeing the Go-Go’s early career was manager Ginger Canzoneri, a friend of the band who made up for her lack of experience in band management with a lot of enthusiasm and personal sacrifices for the band. She says in the documentary that she sold almost everything she had to finance the Go-Go’s first tour of the United Kingdom in 1980. Canzoneri is often described as “the sixth Go-Go,” albeit someone who wasn’t performer or songwriter but who worked behind the scenes on the day-to-day business, at a time when female managers of rock bands were very rare.

Canzoneri says in the documentary why she became the Go-Go’s manager: “I wanted to support that cause and be a part of it. I love communities of women. This band caught my interest for that reason.”

Bello had a day job, which she chose over being in the Go-Go’s. So, in 1979, Bello was replaced by Gina Schock, a fast-talking, ambitious drummer from Baltimore who says she knew from an early age that she wanted to be famous. Schock states in the documentary that before she moved to Los Angeles, she told people in her hometown that the next time she would be in the area, she would be a rock star. And she says of the Los Angeles punk scene at the time: “Being in that setting made me feel safe.”

The Go-Go’s weren’t an overnight sensation. But once they hit it big with their first album, they had a steady string of hits with their second and third albums, until everything came to a crashing halt when they broke up for the first time in 1985. By then, by their own admission, their drug use was out of control, and there were many emotional casualties along the way.

“The Go-Go’s” documentary goes more in depth than “Behind the Music” in describing what happened behind the scenes on the Go-Go’s first U.K. tour in 1980, when they were the opening act for British ska bands Madness and the Specials. It’s already well-documented that on that tour, the Go-Go’s played for mostly male audiences (many of them were racist and sexist skinheads), who hurled a lot of abuse at the band on stage and off stage, including spitting, throwing objects, instigating fights and making threats and insults.

However, the documentary talks a little bit more about how some of the members of the Go-Go’s ended up having “tour romances” with some of the members of Madness and the Specials. Madness multi-instrumentalist Lee Thompson and the Specials co-lead singer/guitarist Lynval Golding are among the people interviewed in the documentary. Golding said that he and Schock had a love affair back then, and he wishes that he asked her to marry her.

Wiedlin began a torturous long-distance romance with the Specials co-lead singer Terry Hall, who was engaged to another woman at the time. One of the love letters he wrote to Wiedlin at the time had some lines that Wiedlin would later put in a song that became the Go-Go’s hit “Our Lips Are Sealed.” (It’s why Hall has co-writing credit on the song.)

And speaking of band members dating band members, Schock says in the documentary that when she first joined the Go-Go’s, she and Wiedlin had their own short-lived fling. Although this hookup wasn’t mentioned in “Behind the Music,” Schock and Wiedlin came out as “sexually fluid” years ago, so it’s not much of surprise that they had a sexual relationship with each other at some point, given the tight-knit nature of the band in its early years.

In the documentary, Wiedlin doesn’t comment on her past sexual relationship with Schock, but Schock says with a laugh that Wieldin broke up with her, although no one’s heart got broken over it. Schock comments, “Do you think something like that is going to fuck with the band? No way!”

Just as they did in “Behind the Music,” the band members credit Schock with being the driving force to get the Go-Go’s to start taking their music careers more seriously. She was the one who pushed for them to go from rehearsing a few times a month to rehearsing every day. “I was determined to whip them into shape,” Schock says in the documentary.

While the Go-Go’s spent much of 1980 touring in England (and came back to Los Angeles pretending that the tour wasn’t a disaster for them), they scored a one-off deal with independent British label Stiff Records, which released “We Got the Beat,” a song written by Caffey. The demo version of the song was released in the U.K., where it was a minor hit. Stiff Records co-founder Dave Robinson says in the documentary that he tried to buy the Go-Go’s song publishing rights. Canzoneri says she advised the Go-Go’s not to sell their song publishing, the band agreed with her, and it ended up being one of the best and most important decisions they ever made.

Despite getting some buzz in the U.K., the Go-Go’s couldn’t get a record deal in their home country of the United States. All the major record companies rejected them, with many of the companies outrightly saying that an all-female rock band wouldn’t be a hit. The Go-Go’s had a large following in the Los Angeles area (they performed regularly at the nightclubs the Masque and the Whisky a Go Go), but they were also untested as a band that could headline a U.S. tour.

The Runaways (also from Los Angeles) were a pioneering all-female rock band from the mid-to-late 1970s, but they never hit it big in the United States (they were more popular in Japan), and are best known for being the band that launched the solo careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Unlike the Go-Go’s, who formed the band organically as adults and had a female manager, the Runaways were a teenage band manufactured with a Lolita/jailbait image by their male manager Kim Fowley. The Runaways recorded songs from a lot of outside songwriters, while the Go-Go’s were a self-contained unit that, with few exceptions, wrote their own songs that they recorded.

Olavarria was pushed off of the Go-Go’s ride to commercial success before the Go-Go’s got a record deal, because her punk ideals and attitude clashed with the rest of the Go-Go’s desire to become a more mainstream pop group. In December 1980, Olavarria got sick with hepatitis A and couldn’t perform in a series of already-booked Go-Go’s concerts.

And so, guitarist Kathy Valentine was recruited as a substitute—she says in the documentary that she learned to play bass and all of the Go-Go’s songs during a cocaine-fueled binge—and the rest of the band liked her so much that they decided to keep Valentine as a permanent member. Canzoneri, just as she described in “Behind the Music,” talks about how she was forced to do the unpleasant task of telling Olavarria that she was fired from the Go-Go’s, because the other band members were too afraid to tell Olavarria themselves.

Olavarria says she was so hurt by the experience that she moved to New York City so she wouldn’t have to see the Go-Go’s and their inner circle in Los Angeles. Ironically, a few years later, Canzoneri would also be on the outs with the Go-Go’s, and she reacted in a similar way. Canzoneri says that she was so angry about the way she was treated that she moved to New York City to get away from the Go-Go’s.

The documentary is a rehash of “Behind the Music” when covering the Go-Go’s rise in the music business. Miles Copeland III, who used to manage the mega-successful rock band the Police (whose drummer, Stewart Copeland, is one Miles’ younger brothers), co-founded the independent I.R.S. Records in 1979. I.R.S. Records had many major-label distributors over the years, but A&M Records was the distributor from 1979 to 1985, during the years that the Go-Go’s were signed to I.R.S. Records. Miles and Stewart Copeland are both interviewed in “The Go-Gos” documentary, and they both have nothing but praise for the Go-Go’s.

I.R.S. Records signed the Go-Go’s in May 1981. By July 1981, the Go-Go’s debut album “Beauty and the Beat” was released. In the documentary, Canzoneri repeats the same story that she told in “Behind the Music” about how the luxurious towels used in the album’s “beauty spa-themed” photo shoot were returned to Macy’s because they couldn’t afford to keep the towels.

At the time of the album’s release, the first wave of influential punk bands had faded or had broken up, and the Go-Go’s were considered part of the New Wave of punk-influenced rock bands that unapologetically recorded radio-friendly pop songs. Miles Copeland comments on why he signed the Go-Go’s to I.R.S. Records: “The establishment record business dismissed them. I saw them as a generational change.”

The “Beauty and the Beat” album’s first single was “Our Lips Are Sealed” (which was a Top 20 hit in some countries, including the U.S.), but it was the album’s new version of “We Got the Beat” that catapulted the Go-Go’s to the major leagues. Released in 1982, this new version of “We Got the Beat” was a No. 2 hit in the U.S., while the “Beauty and the Beat” album eventually hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

The chart-topping achievement of “Beauty and the Beat” made the Go-Go’s the only all-female band to write all the songs and play all the instruments on a No. 1 album in the United States. No other all-female rock band has had the same accomplishment. (The Bangles, who signed to I.R.S. Records after the Go-Go’s did, had their biggest hit songs written by or with outside songwriters.)

The documentary points to two major factors that helped the Go-Go’s become a huge success after their first album was released: MTV (which launched in 1981 and gave the Go-Go’s a lot of airtime) and the Go-Go’s being the opening act for the Police’s 1981 arena tour. Stewart Copeland gushes in the documentary about the Go-Go’s: “They were the best opening act ever!” A year after opening for the Police, the Go-Go’s were headlining arenas.

Other people interviewed in the documentary about the rise of the Go-Go’s include Martha Quinn, one of MTV’s original VJs; journalist Chris Connelly, who worked for Rolling Stone magazine at the time; writer Pleasant Gehman, a longtime friend of the band; Richard Gottherer, one of the producers of “Beauty and the Beat”; and Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna, who says she was heavily influenced by the Go-Go’s when she was a teenager.

Many entertainers who become major successes with their first project often feel that they’ve outgrown their original manager and want to move on to management that they think can take them to the next level. That’s what happened with the Go-Go’s and Canzoneri, who says she saw the writing on the wall when other managers started to court the Go-Go’s, and the band became dazzled by these more-established managers who were making big promises.

In “Behind the Music,” Canzoneri’s split from the Go-Go’s is described as her voluntarily “disappearing.” But in “The Go-Go’s” documentary, Canzoneri makes it clear that her split from the Go-Go’s was something that she didn’t want, but the band wanted, and it hurt her deeply. Just as they did in “Behind the Music,” the Go-Go’s admit in retrospect that parting ways with Canzoneri was a mistake.

“When she left, it wasn’t fun anymore,” Carlisle says in “The Go-Go’s” documentary. “We should’ve stuck with Ginger,” Wiedlin comments, while bitterly stating that the management hired to replace Canzoneri ended up being horrible for the band. Although no one names this replacement management in the documentary, it was Irving Azoff’s Front Line Management, which is best known for representing the Eagles.

“Behind the Music” already chronicled the downfall of the Go-Go’s: problems with drugs and egos, only made worse by money and fame. Therefore, nothing new is revealed in “The Go-Go’s” documentary about why the band went on a downward spiral. All of the band members were living a “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” lifestyle while having a relatively “clean” public image. The hits kept coming with second album “Vacation” (released in 1982) and third album “Talk Show” (released in 1984), but the Go-Go’s sales were decreasing, and they never again achieved the heights of their first album “Beauty and the Beat.”

Caffey’s heroin addiction is detailed again, and so is Schock’s health scare in 1984, when she had surgery for a congenital hole in her heart. The documentary includes the Go-Go’s talking about how even though there were growing tensions in the band, they rallied together for Schock and took a band trip to Palm Springs to do some drug-fueled partying before Schock was scheduled to have surgery. (Because of her heart condition, the band members say that they didn’t allow Schock to indulge in any illegal stimulants, such as cocaine.) The documentary includes some candid photos of that trip, but these photos are very tame and don’t show any debauchery happening.

By the time the Go-Go’s recorded the “Talk Show” album, Wiedlin was feeling increasingly alienated from the band. She talks about telling the other band members that she wanted to sing lead vocals on “Forget That Day,” an “intensely personal” song that she wrote for the album. But she was outvoted because the other band members felt that Carlisle had to sing lead vocals on all Go-Go’s songs. In the documentary, Schock implies that she never fully agreed to that decision, but she went along with it, perhaps out of peer pressure.

Also repeated is the story of why Wiedlin quit the Go-Go’s in 1984: Even though she wrote or co-wrote the majority of the songs on “Talk Show,” the rest of the band wanted to split the album’s songwriting royalties equally amongst all the band members, which greatly upset Wiedlin. She privately told the band she was quitting before the Go-Go’s 1984 tour began, but she agreed to do the tour and to publicly announce the split after the tour ended.

The documentary spends more time on the band’s conflicts over songwriting royalties rather than giving new insight into the Go-Go’s songwriting process. There’s nothing new in the often-repeated stories about how “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” were written. And don’t expect to hear songwriting descriptions for a lot of lesser-known Go-Go’s hits.

There were also ego issues over Carlisle getting the majority of the public’s attention (a common issue with bands and their lead singers), and chief songwriters Caffey and Wiedlin were making a lot more money than their bandmates because of the songwriting royalties. After the Go-Go’s broke up for the first time, Schock and Valentine went on to separately write hit songs for other artists, but it’s clear that Valentine and Schock felt like they were treated as the “inferior” members of the Go-Go’s.

After Wiedlin quit, the Go-Go’s had to go through another lineup change: Valentine switched to rhythm guitar, and Paula Jean Brown joined as the band’s new bassist. Brown, who is interviewed in the documentary (she wasn’t in “Behind the Music”), remembers she was very excited at first to join the Go-Go’s, before she knew how bad things were in the band. Their next big show was at the first Rock in Rio Festival in 1985, but by then the band was really starting to fall apart. Schock says that Caffey was so out of control with her drug use that notorious drug addict Ozzy Osbourne threw Caffey out of his dressing room.

Brown says that she was the one who urged Caffey to check into rehab. Caffey agrees that’s what happened, and she says she’s “forever grateful” to Brown for helping save her life. Caffey reiterates that if she had continued to be in the Go-Go’s, it would have put her newly sober life in jeopardy: “I made the decision to choose myself over the band.” Carlisle’s own rehab stint for cocaine addiction around the same time (and her admitted relapses over the years) are not mentioned in “The Go-Go’s” documentary, but they’re mentioned in “Behind the Music Remastered.”

The documentary repeats the well-known description of how Schock and Valentine were furious over Caffey and Carlisle deciding to disband the group in 1985. Schock and Valentine describe being treated like disposable backup musicians, since they were told that because Caffey was a songwriter and Carlisle was the lead singer, the Go-Go’s couldn’t exist without Caffey and Carlisle.

What exactly is new in “The Go-Go’s” documentary? In addition to having interviews with some people who weren’t in the Go-Go’s “Behind the Music” episode, the movie has some never-before-seen photos, such as Polaroids of the Go-Go’s dressed as a fictional Clown Family, where each of the band members took joke-intentioned solo photos with the same theme. For example, if the theme was snorting cocaine or giving birth, each band member would be posed in the same place acting out that theme. (For whatever reason, Wiedlin was the “baby” in the childbirth Clown Family photos.)

These photos in the documentary, just like the photos of the Palm Beach trip, are deliberately goofy, as if to downplay the group’s raunchy exploits that were recorded or photographed. The Go-Go’s have a widely circulated, explicit bootleg video from the early ‘80s, showing Carlisle and Valentine with male groupies and roadies and a sex toy. “Behind the Music” mentioned the video and showed a quick clip from the non-sexual part of the video, but the video is not mentioned at all in “The Go-Go’s” documentary. The band members’ marriages and children are also left out of the documentary.

Solo projects are barely mentioned, except mainly to note that Carlisle was the only Go-Go’s member to have hit albums and major tours as a solo artist. The documentary breezes right through a brief mention of the “Head Over Heels” Broadway musical (which used the Go-Go’s songs but it wasn’t a musical about the Go-Go’s) that debuted in July 2018. The documentary leaves out the fact that “Head Over Heels” was a money-loser that closed after just six months on Broadway.

And the documentary erases a lot of the Go-Go’s history, including the numerous reunions and “farewell” shows; Valentine’s 1997 lawsuit against the Go-Go’s that was settled out of court two years later; and the band’s fourth studio album, 2001’s “God Bless the Go-Go’s,” which was a big flop. The Go-Go’s “Behind the Music” episode was done mainly to promote that album.

Not coincidentally, this “Go-Go’s” documentary premiered on the same day (July 31, 2020) that the Go-Go’s released “Club Zero,” the band’s first new single since 2001. There’s footage of the Go-Go’s rehearsing the song in a studio, as well as a mention that the band continues to do live performances. (The Go-Go’s 2020 tour was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

The documentary seems overly calculated to not include anything that’s too raunchy or anything that would remind people of the acrimony and flops in the band after the Go-Go’s broke up the first time in 1985. And these omissions are disappointing, considering that a documentary feature film with the freedom to have uncensored curse words (unlike “Behind the Music”) should have used that freedom to have content that’s more revealing than what can go in a “Behind the Music” episode.

The documentary’s over-emphasis on the Go-Go’s origins as a punk band (even though the Go-Go’s were never famous for writing any punk music) seems like pandering to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame music snobs or anyone else who thinks that the Go-Go’s don’t deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the documentary, Carlisle implies that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame co-founder Jann Wenner (who co-founded Rolling Stone magazine) might hold a grudge against the Go-Go’s.

Why? The band members (through Canzoneri) complained to Wenner about their first Rolling Stone magazine cover (in 1982), which had them posed in their underwear with the sexually degrading headline “Go-Go’s Put Out.” It was the headline, which the Go-Go’s had no control over, that seemed to irk the band the most.

Canzoneri remembers when she called Wenner to tell him that some of the Go-Go’s were unhappy with the magazine cover, Wenner said that he thought she was calling him to thank him for the cover, and he hung up on her. “Maybe that’s why we’re not in the Rock Hall of Fame,” Carlisle speculates, because she says that certain Rock and Roll Hall of Fame board members probably think of the Go-Go’s as “those ungrateful wenches.”

The movie ends with journalist Connelly saying about the Go-Go’s: “I don’t know what more they have to do to get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Come on!” And then, Bikini Kill’s Hanna chimes in to say, “They’re in my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Ending the movie this way is basically a direct plea for the Go-Go’s to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It comes across as a little too cloying and desperate.

When “The Go-Go’s” documentary had its world premiere 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the movie didn’t get any documentary awards buzz, and here’s why: When you consider that the Go-Go’s already revealed a lot about themselves in “Behind the Music,” and Carlisle and Valentine have each done a memoir, the documentary doesn’t deliver a lot of new and noteworthy information about the band. Even though the Go-Go’s story has been told before (and some would say better) on “Behind the Music,” this documentary is interesting enough, but not essential, for people who want an overall history of the band.

Showtime premiered “The Go-Go’s” on July 31, 2020.