'The Go-Go's': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
They still got the beat.

The first and still only all-female band to write their own songs, play their own instruments and top the Billboard album charts gets a spirited salute in Alison Ellwood's doc for Showtime.

Yesterday's pop sensation inevitably becomes tomorrow's nostalgia. But if your impressions of The Go-Go's are formed largely by their enduring karaoke-lounge popularity, or by the campy image of the five bandmembers water-skiing on the cover of their Vacation album, like chorines in an Esther Williams movie, then it's good to be reminded that these erstwhile badasses were spawned out of the Los Angeles punk scene. Alison Ellwood's entertaining bio-documentary, which will air on Showtime in North America, traces their dive-bar roots, their years of booze-and-blow hedonism, the dizzying ascent of their success and the strained sisterhood that pulled them apart.

To most casual fans, The Go-Go's are remembered for a small handful of exuberantly catchy 1980s pop hits and for the more polished evolution of lead singer Belinda Carlisle's subsequent solo career. So it's a kick to see the original incarnation playing scrappy sets with a much rougher, angrier sound at late-'70s L.A. venues and to hear how the definitive lineup gradually came together.

The group was not the packaged product of male record company executives but rather a self-made collective of misfits who envisioned themselves as a New Wave answer to 1960s girl groups like The Shirelles and The Shangri-Las, only playing their own instruments in addition to vocals. 

Founding member and rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, whose kewpie-doll appearance and forthright manner make her one of the most engaging interviews, talks about her history of depression and suicide attempts from age 15, and how playing in a punk band finally made her feel powerful.

The fact that the original members had far more drive than skill, and relatively little musicianship, was only a minor hitch. That shortcoming was partly addressed when lead guitarist and keyboardist Charlotte Caffey joined the band. Inspired while watching a Twilight Zone episode on late-night TV, she wrote "We Got the Beat," the song that would change the group's trajectory, pushing them in a more melodic direction.

Backed by a wealth of video footage, archival photographs and gig posters, Ellwood captures the determination with which the band thrust itself forward, neither glossing over nor digging too deep into the hint of ruthlessness with which early members — and later, original manager Ginger Canzoneri — were pushed aside as the band became big business. It's a credit to the documentary's transparency that all are given their chance to go on record here.

An early turning point came when The Go-Go's opened in L.A. for Madness and then The Specials, sufficiently impressing both those English ska revival bands to get them invited on a 1980 U.K. tour. "Respect to them girls, man, ya know?" says ineffably cool Specials guitarist Lynval Golding, suggesting how relatively uncommon it was to see a group of female musicians commanding the stage at that time.

There are funny accounts of playing for hostile white nationalist audiences in British seaside towns that did not come to see a bunch of California girls. But the experience yielded a deal with influential indie label Stiff Records to cut "We Got the Beat" as a single, and among the inter-band romances, Wiedlin's time with Specials singer Terry Hall led to their collaboration on the next big Go-Go's single, "Our Lips Are Sealed."

The addition of drummer Gina Schock (another standout interviewee) and bassist Kathy Valentine is given detailed coverage. The latter amusingly admits she learned the entire Go-Go's set list on a two-day coke binge, despite being a guitarist with zero previous experience playing bass.

They were signed by Miles Copeland to his I.R.S. Records label and connected with producer Richard Gottehrer, who helped refine their sound, slowing down their speedy performance mode to enhance the clarity of their lyrics and completing their transition to pop.

Early MTV VJ Martha Quinn talks about the band exploding at the same time as the network. Their video for "Our Lips Are Sealed" was treated as a lark, with the women expecting to be arrested as they splashed around in the Electric Fountain in Beverly Hills. Reportedly made on a $6,000 overage from a shoot with I.R.S. stablemates The Police, the video put The Go-Go's on the map in a big way. And opening for The Police on a world tour took them from clubs to arenas. Traces of their original punk spirit remained, however, notably when they performed while wasted on Saturday Night Live after a long day of alcohol and drug consumption in the studio.

Ellwood and editor Brett Banks smoothly introduce the downward spiral in the narrative as the pressures of fame and imbalance in the individual members' earning power (Caffey was at the top of that scale, having the most songwriting credits) fueled exhaustion and infighting. All the women are quite candid about their excesses, especially Caffey, who was a barely functioning heroin addict the entire time the group was on the rise, though Carlisle generally is less revealing. While the singer has been open about the substance abuse in her past, she nods only briefly here to the rewards of sobriety in her 40s, with just a hint at the role her ego issues may have played in the group's bust-up.

Aside from musicians who interacted directly with The Go-Go's, there’s little context on what else was happening in popular music during the period of their ascent (passing mention is made of The Runaways as predecessors, but not a word about pop contemporaries The Bangles, for instance). But as a deep dive into the band's personal and collective history, the slickly assembled film will give fans what they want. Despite some lingering acrimony over their split, it ends on an upbeat note, showing the resilience of the women's bonds as they collaborate for the first time since 2001 on a new song.

The end credits provide a reminder that The Go-Go's were the first and still only all-female band who played their own instruments and wrote their own material to have an album crack No. 1 on the Billboard chart, where it remained for six weeks. Rolling Stone writer Chris Connelly and Police drummer Stewart Copeland are among those perplexed that the band has still not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ellwood's affectionate documentary furthers that case.

Production companies: Fine Point Films, Fadoo Production
Director: Alison Ellwood
Producers: Trevor Birney, Corey Russell, Eimhear O’Neill
Executive producers: David Blackman, Daniel Inkeles, Brendan J. Byrne
Director of photography: Sam Painter
Music: Matt Hauser
Editor: Brett Banks
Animation and visual effects: Ben Fine
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

Sales: Kew Media Distribution

98 minutes