BRWC is at Sheffield Doc Fest 2020 watching The Go-Go’s
Esme Betamax | @betamaxer
Director Alison Ellwood provides The Go-Go’s with a second chance to tell their story in full.
The Go-Go’s are the first all-female band to have a #1 album in the U.S. Forming in the late 70s, and bookended by The Runaways and The Bangles, their songs have hooks. Be prepared to have a couple of earworms after this.
Twenty years since the last documentary, the Go-Go’s have been reluctant to open up as they felt that VH1 did a bit of a hatchet job. They don’t look kindly on it for numerous reasons: Too negative, the tabloid style, a man’s perspective. The residual feeling from the VH1 documentary was that the girls were in over their heads or that women are simply not cut out for the rock n roll lifestyle. Ellwood’s new documentary counters that narrative with praise from members of The Specials, The Police, and I.R.S. label founder Miles Copeland. VH1 Behind The Music (2000) is available to watch here, complete with its cheesy voiceover.
The Go-Go’s bring up certain performances, notably their SNL appearance, as examples of their most debauched. However, with it being available online, Elwood chooses to leave out that footage and use photos instead. It’s a painfully slow performance. Like a drunk trying to pull up a zip. They get there in the end, but only through dogged perseverance. It’s more important to see the women laughing about it now.
The Go-Go’s (2020) is a compassionate film, thoughtfully arranged, in the same vein as The Punk Singer (2013). And as much as they try to distance themselves from the VH1 documentary, the simple fact is that the story remains the same: Charlotte Caffey was still a heroin addict; Belinda Carlisle would use anyone in the pursuit of fame; Gina Schock still wanted songwriting royalties for songs she didn’t write. Cutthroat in their ambition, jealous and bitter from betrayal, it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
Carlisle proves to be the canniest of them all. Pulling the plug not long after Jane Wiedlin’s departure, and securing the Go-Go’s primary hitmaker Charlotte Caffey as songwriter for her solo career. Indeed, she’s the only one to continue at that level of fame. Lucky for Belinda someone else (Wiedlin’s replacement Paula Jean Brown) had stepped in and helped Caffey go to rehab in time.
Ellwood creates space for former members to speak, which gives the story a more rounded quality—not merely glossing over the past—and what comes out of it is a fondness for the LA punk scene of the late 70s. Although the Go-Go’s display greater or lesser degrees of regret about how they treated some people, there is no clear reconciliation with past members. Some of the emotions are still so raw for them recounting the difficult times, especially for their former manager Ginger Canzoneri. She invested everything in The Go-Go’s, including selling her belongings in order to get them on their UK tour. But, inevitably, their drive and determination for success meant her days as manager were numbered.
Caffey refers to The Go-Go’s as a marriage, and that’s what comes across. They are in each other’s lives for better or worse. The five have made peace with each other, if not with those they ditched along the way.
Alison Ellwood succeeds in putting the women at ease, partly through her experience (Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place, 2011, History of the Eagles, 2013, and simply because she is a woman. This is the documentary they wanted to make back in 2000. But they simply weren’t ready to tell a well rounded story then. In their 40s, the group was still too close to the chaos and drama of those formative years 1981-1985. Schock had sued the band only three years prior to its release, and Kathy Valentine was yet to file her lawsuit, so differences were far from being resolved.
The women are keen for people to understand that they have love and respect for each other. Now that they are in their 60s, and have put the lawsuits behind them, they have mellowed enough to look at the bigger picture. That in itself makes for better viewing.
The Go-Go’s is released on Showtime 1st August 2020. Alison Ellwood’s documentary Laurel Canyon, about the musicians and counterculture of the area in the 1960s and 70s, was released in two parts at the end of May 2020.
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