Unless you were there, it's hard to understand what an impact The Go-Go's made when they hit the music scene in the early '80s. An all-girl band who played their own instruments and wrote their own music was initially seen as a novelty. This was, after all, an era where radio stations thought it was bad form to play two female artists back-to-back. (My father ran one, so I speak from experience on that count.) Repeated play on the then-revolutionary MTV allowed viewers to see what fun they were personally, in addition to hearing how good they sounded. The band's revolutionary rise and eventual downfall is documented in Alison Ellwood's The Go-Go's, one of the best rock docs of recent years.
The film benefits greatly from the fact that home video technology boomed in the '80s. Therefore, there's plenty of great performance footage from the band's early days to accompany recent on-camera interviews. Original members Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, and Charlotte Caffey talk about how they met, began playing, and won over crowds in punk clubs with their music, which put a slightly poppier edge on what other bands were doing. The original bass player and drummer weren't on the same page about the direction of the group, so one left and the other was fired. Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock joined, and everything clicked. Propelled by the hits “Our Lips are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat,” the Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat rocketed to the top of the Billboard album chart.
As exciting as the rapid success was, it came with a cost. The record label wanted another album right away, which caused rushed songwriting. There were drug problems – Carlisle was hooked on cocaine, Caffey on heroin. Wiedlin resented not being allowed to sing one of the songs she wrote. Money squabbles existed, too. As the primary songwriters, Wiedlin and Caffey made the most money, while Carlisle and Schock earned the least. A series of drunken live appearances, most notably on Saturday Night Live, didn't help either.
The Go-Go's is able to show most of this in detail, thanks not only to publicly recorded footage but also personal photos the members took. The result is a very intimate look at the highs and lows of the band's career. Although their story is certainly very dramatic at times, the women had a lot of fun. Giving the world a different sound -- and having that sound appreciated -- was a blast, as was the heady rush of smashing through the glass ceiling when it came to female rockers.
Ellwood documents the history of the Go-Go's extremely well. The film is more than an extended episode of Behind the Music, though. A distinct attempt is made to cinematically capture the vibe that made the group so beloved. The energetic pacing is in the spirit of their best songs. On-screen graphics and animation mimic the colorful fashion style of the band. Extensive use of their great music ties everything together, almost as if we're listening to an album. The approach is mesmerizing.
The Go-Go's brings all five band members together at the end for a triumphant reunion. Despite having broken up, they've reunited multiple times over the years. Once a Go-Go, always a Go-Go. Knowing that the women can still continue to collaborate after everything they've been through speaks volumes about their commitment to the legacy they created. If you're a fan of the band (and I most definitely am), this is a must-see. If you're not, you might find yourself becoming one.
Note: The Go-Go's debuts on Showtime July 31.
out of four
The Go-Go's is unrated, but contains adult language and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.