'The Go-Go's' Review: How the most successful girl rock group of all time lost and found themselves again
This Showtime documentary explores the career trajectory of The Go-Go's, the first authentic girl band who wrote and played their own hit new wave songs, becoming '80s icons in the process
'The Go-Go's', a new music documentary about the most successful girl rock band of all time, The Go-Go's, will premiere on the Showtime network this Friday, July 31, at 9 pm ET, with a repeat telecast on August 1 at 7.20 pm ET. The 98-minute feature directed by Alison Ellwood (of 'History of the Eagles' and 'Laurel Canyon' fame) is a remarkable tale of how a quintet of ambitious female musicians came together at the dawn of the early '80s, revolutionized the music world and changed our outlook on what a girl band was capable of.
Their feisty punk attitude when they first started out, and later, their catchy & bubbly new wave anthems captured the nascent imagination of the MTV generation, who couldn't get enough of their dazzling energy and radiance. Through a blend of archival footage, present-day interviews, and animated snippets, we get a rich and in-depth narrative of their story, and it proves to be an enthralling feast for the senses.
As the band themselves proudly declared, "We are the first all-girl band, that wrote their own material and played their own instruments, to be really successful." It all started in the late '70s when the founding members of the Go-Go's, namely vocalist Belinda Carlisle, guitarist Jane Wiedlin, bassist Margot Olavarria and drummer Elissa Bello got together as a band of rebellious misfits, inspired by the LA punk movement to form their own band and play their own brand of spunky music, even as the first wave of punk died out. Their ambition was further intensified after attending a disappointing Sex Pistols concert circa 1978 in San Francisco, the one where Jonny Rotten famously said "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
As the band members candidly admitted, they barely knew how to play their instruments, but they more than made up for that with their infectious spirit. "We saw no reason why we couldn't be just as good as the boys or men," the Go-Go's revealed. After adding Charlotte Caffey, a classically trained pianist on lead guitar in 1978, the Go-Go's started gigging and gradually gained a reputation in the local music scene. After their drummer Alyssa quit in 1979, they added drummer Gina Schock after meeting her at a party. Besides famously coming to California with $2,000 dollars and 2 grams of coke, Schock also brought a tightness and energy to the all-girl outfit and egged them on to keep practicing and improving their craft.
It was around this time, at the dawn of the '80s, that the girls started embracing a softer, poppier, new wave sound. Caffey famously wrote their first bonafide hit while watching 'The Twilight Zone' and the resulting track, 'We Got The Beat' changed their vibe and trajectory. They were invited to open for popular ska bands like Madness and The Specials in England, and their devoted manager Ginger Canzoneri made incredible sacrifices like selling her car to get the band across the pond.
Charlotte also made sacrifices of her own, turning down a music library job at paramount because she believed in the band as well. The tours in the UK proved to be daunting, as they were often met by unimpressed skinheads and sexist louts who shouted "Show your tits." But the experiences hardened the group as a unit, and the pressure ensured they were well equipped to deal with unruly crowds in the future. One positive that came out of this experience was the blossoming romance between Terry Hall from The Specials and Jane Wiedlin, whose correspondence would later inspire the hit 'Our Lips Are Sealed'.
Things changed after they returned to the States since word had spread about the band, and now they had people queueing up to watch them play. But their new sound also meant that Margot was getting disillusioned with the band, and she was later replaced by bassist Kathy Valentine, which completed the classic Go-Go's lineup. Kathy famously learned their songs on a three-day coke binge, and the band's new vibe catapulted them to the top of the pecking order for bands who deserved to be signed.
Most labels passed on them because no one had ever envisioned how an all-female ensemble would pan out, but the girls put it down to the current status quo and old-fashioned sexism. However, Miles Copeland, the manager of The Police, believed in them enough to sign them to his IRS Records label. Their multi-platinum-selling No.1 debut album 'Beauty and the Beat' soon followed, and the Go-Go's became the darlings of the decade, with hits like 'We Got the Beat', 'Our Lips Are Sealed' and 'This Town'.
More classics like 'Vacation', the title track from their rushed second album soon followed, and their legacy in popular culture was cemented by the Top 40 hits 'Head over Heels' and 'Turn to You' from their third album 'Talk Show'. Thanks to this incredible success rate, The Go-Gos would go on to become the most iconic girl group of the '80s. They inspired a plethora of all-girl bands (and feminists) in the years that followed with their bubbly can-do attitude, the spirit of empowerment and fierce independence.
However, things sadly took a turn for the worse by 1985, as the accumulated baggage the band was carrying, including the loss of their loyal manager Ginger Canzoneri (she left after the girls were enticed by bigger management firms), eventually led to their breakup. There were many physical and emotional scars by that time — the band had endured the pressures of fame, fatigue (Gina needed heart surgery), and drug addiction (Charlotte was addicted to heroin). Besides this, the members had forgotten how to communicate respectfully with one another, leading to ego clashes, and in-fighting among band members over potential earnings and restrictive roles (Paula Jean Brown replaced Jane Wiedlin after she quit). All these factors ultimately spelled curtains for the talented band.
Thankfully, the bond that these five musical sisters shared proved to be stronger than the issues that had previously torn them apart. They reunited multiple times in different incarnations during the '90s and went on to release more warmly-received music in the new millennium. They released their latest album called 'God Bless The Go-Gos' in 2001 and even contributed tunes to a Broadway musical called 'Head Over Heels' in 2018.
This happy Go-Go's lovefest has now culminatinated in a new song, 'Club Zero' that premiered on July 31, the day their impressive story airs for the first time on Showtime. Things truly have come full circle for The Go-Gos, and this well-crafted documentary is a story of triumph and survival, guts and glory, pain and perseverance.
Besides interviews with past and present members of the band, we also get to see conversations with people who were especially close to the Go-Go's, such as former manager Ginger Canzoneri, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, Lee Thompson of Madness, Lynval Golding of The Specials, the punk poet Pleasant Gehman, Stewart Copeland aka the drummer of The Police, and Miles Copeland of IRS Records.
Other interviewees offering insights included the likes of Dave Robinson of Stiff Records, Chris Connelly of Rolling Stone, Martha Quinn of MTV, and Richard Gottehrer of The Orchard. There also plenty of amazing anecdotes and trivia tidbits liberally sprinkled throughout this documentary, like the time they got cross-eyed drunk (and high) before an SNL appearance and how Charlotte Caffey once got thrown out of Ozzy Osbourne's dressing room because she was so out of control (she later went to rehab with replacement bassist Paula Jean Brown's help).
A few other glorious anecdotes include the time a generous Sting had once surprised them with champagne in their dressing room to toast his touring partners on their new number one album ('Beauty and the Beat'), beating his own band, The Police, in the process. There are even some hilarious gems about how bawdy the spirited quintet could get, declaring, "Let’s go get some booty tonight” after a recording session, and even a startling revelation that they wanted to get arrested while filming the music video for 'Our Lips Are Sealed' on a tight budget. Speaking of shoestring budgets, the towels that they used for the 'Beauty and the Beat' album cover actually had to be returned after the photoshoot because they couldn't afford to keep them!
There remains one minor quibble when it comes to the Go-Go's astonishing career and groundbreaking legacy. They still haven't been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a glaring omission that had Stewart Copeland of The Police cursing as he questioned this strange decision.
But if there's anything we've learned from the Go-Go's, they've managed to triumph over the odds in every conceivable way, and theirs is a story we can take inspiration from while being thoroughly entertained along the way. As the Go-Go's recently admitted, "We lived it and we survived it. Now, looking back on our history through this film, we can appreciate our journey, laughter, triumphs, and struggles as a band. We hope this documentary will show the world what pioneers we were, and how our experience paved the way for other musicians."