The Go-Go’s Reborn in Showtime Documentary

They weren’t the first all female rock band. Nor were they the first female band to write their own songs or play their own instruments. Rather, the very specific superlative accomplishment of The Go-Go’s is that they were the first all-female rock band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to become so successful—when their indelible 1981 debut album Beauty and the Beat went to No. 1.

Their seemingly swift rise, coupled with their own glamor and spunk, was followed by the inevitable slump and backlashes afforded such a band. By 1985, they had broken up. But many of their songs remain vibrant and sturdy all these years later, and were most recently featured in a 2018 Broadway production Head Over Heels. The band’s occasional reunions over the past few decades never fail to spark New Wave nostalgia among their fans.

Now their story is being told in perhaps the most complete way in Alison Ellwood’s new documentary The Go-Go’s, premiering Saturday, August 1 at 9PM on Showtime. Ellwood is becoming something of the queen of rockumentaries of late, following the big two part Laurel Canyon earlier this summer for Epix, and The History of the Eagles.

Here, it’s bracing to whip from early footage of teenage fans Belinda Carlisle or Jane Wiedlin ringing stages at early LA punk shows to seeing them today with the other band members—all in their early to mid 60s, with at least one of them already eligible for Medicare. As strange as it might seem to see a grey-haired Wiedlin, emulating the sharpest mom at PTA, or the impossibly sleek Carlisle, looking (and sounding) like Gloria Steinem, telling their remarkable tale, they also share a kind of sisterhood that means that even if they didn’t speak for five years following their bitter breakup, the bond would eventually bring them back together.

What built their ties was a long gestation period as they formed years before their debut as a collection of misfits who saw in the punk scene a vibrant gang in which they’d feel a part. They decided to form a band because everyone seemed to be in a band. While everybody assumed they’d be playing punk, Wiedlin says their inspirations were closer to ’60s girl groups like the Shirelles or Shangri-La’s except with instruments. First hurdle: They needed to learn to play.

Luckily, the prevailing raw primitivism of punk hid most of their flaws as they improved. But The Go-Go’s were a very different band when they began, and Ellwood’s film is deepened by the participation of people like original bassist Margot Olavarria. The original drummer was Elissa Bello.

Ambition is an anathema in the punk world, and the band took some shots when they kept replacing members who seemed more professional. Baltimore-born Gina Schock was a key addition—adding a work ethic and a consistent beat to the group. But it was classically trained Charlotte Caffey who had joined on guitar, with the ability to write catchy songs—one of which, “We Got the Beat,” became an early crowd favorite. It was also their first single for the British-based Stiff Records where they did a raucous tour in 1980 with Madness and The Specials (where they were rejected and spat upon by skinhead fans).

Still, they acted like conquering heroes when they returned to LA and by the time they finally got signed by I.R.S., they had a wealth of dreamy, catchy songs that would forever be the basis of the most favorite Go-Go’s songs. It was producer Richard Gottehrer (who wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and had produced Blondie) who encouraged them to slow down their songs and let the melodies breathe.

It was just before the recording when they made their last big personnel move, replacing Olavarria with Kathy Valentine. The punk-loving Olavarria hadn’t liked the band’s pop turn and when sickness kept her from a performance, they brought in Valentine, a fan who quickly picked up every bass part (though she never played bass before) and eventually brought along a song she had recorded with her previous band, the Textones, “Vacation.”

The five were then set and their moment of glee and stardom was heady if fleeing. The documentary shows how Caffey was a heroin addict unbeknownst to the others, though drugs ran freely through the band (and it took a late addition to the band to realize how imperiled she was).

In many ways the story of the Go-Go’s was similar to other bands: They had been talked into dropping an original manager who gave everything to bring them to the brink of success. And there was a bitter split over publishing payments that made Caffey and Wiedlin better paid than Carlisle and Schock. But the Go-Go’s had their own special problems with exploitation—their first Rolling Stone cover had them in their underwear; the headline, “Go-Go’s Put Out.” Also, they never seemed to be taken as seriously as male bands—they’re still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it is pointed out more than once.

We remember the later albums of The Go-Go’s for being mildly disappointing despite standout singles like “Head Over Heels” and “Turn to You.” By the end, Wiedlin quit the band, because she wasn’t allowed to sing lead on a song that meant a lot to her. She was replaced by bassist Paula Jean Brown for their last big gigs at Rock in Rio.

As far as the documentary goes, that’s the end of the band—despite the miraculous reunion at the film’s end, recording their first new song in forever, “Club Zero,” to be released Friday July 31 on UMe. All that ignores a slew of reunion and farewell tours, as well as a 2001 studio album that only made it to No. 57. Also generally ignored in the film is the solo work of Carlisle and others, and their personal lives—Belinda married James Mason’s son after a fling with a Dodger, for example. But we do hear of Wiedlin’s liaison with The Specials’ Terry Hall, who provided the lyrics for “Our Lips are Sealed.”

It’s charming, though, to see the five together laughing and rocking out on the new single at the end, as if sassy sexagenarians at a high school reunion reliving a sisterhood that will never leave them.

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