The Go-Go’s aren’t in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a fact repeated quite a few times in Alison Ellwood’s documentary on the titular band, and “The Go-Go’s” doesn’t just lift the veil on the Los Angeles punk band-turned-pop goddesses but also attempts to cast an eye on the misogyny of a music industry that hasn’t given the band their due. “The Go-Go’s” lit the world on fire, and while Ellwood’s documentary might not do the same thing, it’s a great crash course.
Ellwood’s name, frankly, is worth the Showtime subscription in itself. She helmed the utterly brilliant documentary on the Laurel Canyon music scene for Epix earlier this year, and if you saw that, then it’s hard to avoid comparisons with “The Go-Go’s” despite the fact the two very different musical stylings. Elwood brings the same sense of time and place to the L.A. punk scene as she does to the hilly landscape of Laurel Canyon.
The band members that comprised the original Go-Go’s lineup were teenage girls looking to avoid conforming to the norm. Lead singer Belinda Carlisle was a perky blonde cheerleader who had no problem cutting her hair short and dyeing it black. The core group of bandmembers all saw themselves as misfits, in spite of their looks, and as they navigated a punk landscape that thrived on non-conformity the band soon realized they were at a disadvantage.
As the band recounts their travels to Europe, they found themselves performing in a series of clubs frequented by white supremacists. To hear them tell it, it was a horrifying nightmare of being spit on, berated and ridiculed, not just because they were Americans, but because they were women. Ellwood doesn’t focus overtly on sexism, but leaves it on the margins. Whether being told to bare their breasts at a show or teased up to be beauty queens in their music videos, The Go-Go’s were always aware of how they were sold as sex objects. The lack of respect from the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame almost reinforces that without strictly saying it.
The emphasis on the music doesn’t feel as prominent in comparison to “Laurel Canyon,” but what’s there is utterly fun and upbeat, even in the stripped down versions that play at a few points throughout. The first half, focused on their punk years, is a fantastic examination of the scene at the time. And while you might be inclined to think everyone was Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, the Go-Go’s appreciated the fact that one didn’t have to be a professionally trained musician in order to perform; you just had to have something to say.
Of course, the arrival of fame changes everything, and it does take “The Go-Go’s” down a familiar, VH1 “Behind the Music” path. Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin are the most recognizable members of the band, with Charlotte Caffey being credited as songwriter for most of their material. But where “The Go-Go’s” sticks out is in the names you don’t know, like drummer Gina Shock. Shock steals every interview she does with her tough talk and uncompromising attitude. Shock discusses being one of the oft-forgotten members of the band, as drummers often are, but her eventual fallout from the band showcases how much in-fighting was taking place behind the scenes.
It’s interesting because, considering the Go-Go’s are one of the most successful all-female bands, there’s an expectation of politeness that came with them. In several of their interviews they discussed being “like sisters,” with the implication being that they may squabble here and there, but they were bond by those seemingly impenetrable ties of sisterhood. As the women themselves will tell you, they fought about a lot, whether that was credit on their songs or money. Their issues weren’t the typical “girl” problems of boys and clothes, but the problems that directly come with success, regardless of gender.
If you’re looking for anything salacious, that is in surprisingly short supply. The group regularly talks about engaging in drug use with a blasé attitude of “everyone else was doing it.” Caffey’s increasing heroin addiction is really the only drug element discussed in any depth or with significance. Caffey is an open book, but it’s surprising it’s limited to her. Carlisle suffered from cocaine addiction for 30 years, a fact she’s talked about before, as well as struggled with eating disorders — but that’s entirely absent. It leaves you believing that certain participants might have asked to specifically avoid tough topics and can make the documentary feel sanitized.
“The Go-Go’s” is an entertaining and well-put together package on a musical group who should command the respect of their male peers. It’s a bit too neat and tidy at times, and Ellwood’s previous work will overshadow it if you saw it. But if you don’t know who the Go-Go’s were and where they ended up, you get the beat.
“The Go-Go’s” premieres August 1 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.