I wanted to like this documentary about “the first all-female band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to reach number one in the Billboard album charts.” This fact in itself is worthy of celebration. That this feat occurred in 1982 and hasn’t been repeated is appalling and I was hoping that this documentary by Alison Elwood might shine a light on “why The Go-Go’s?”
My knowledge of The Go-Go’s is based on their high energy pop hits of the 80s and I always thought of them as perky and fluoro-coloured pop divas. It was a nice surprise to find that they started as a punk band, complete with deliberately terrible haircuts, ripped tights and zipper embellishments. They couldn’t play instruments but had such a passion for the scene that starting a band was an obvious choice, particularly for a music genre where playing badly was a bonus.
It’s clear that they had ambition because they worked hard and got better at what they did. Their first break was supporting The Specials and Madness on a tour of the UK and it was a baptism of fire (or rather spit). The many right wing fans of the two headlining ska bands didn’t take kindly to non-ska playing American women and they made sure they knew it. Returning home, just the fact they had toured the UK gave them cred and their popularity rose.
This pleasant and serviceable documentary treads the usual paths in telling the story. We get good background information with lots of clips and photos and memories from the band members when they were interviewed at the height of their fame and now. Some of the names are more familiar than others – lead singer Belinda Carlisle of course who went on to have a solo career, as well as punk kawaii pixie Jane Wiedlin.
We can kind of tell that some big bust up is looming and signs of tension arise as soon as the band starts to get commercial success. Because of course they are a punk band at heart (as can be seen perhaps by the irksome possessive apostrophe in their name). The first casualty is bassist Margot Olavarria who is shunted out as she complains of the shift away from their roots. They get their manager to let her know and then a few years later, do the same to their manager. Along the way there is general exhaustion from constant touring and too many drugs and arguments about royalties and who gets to sing the songs.
I think we are supposed to find this all understandable – they were under pressure, they were role models for other girl bands, they didn’t have a lot of control of their careers. And regardless of Carlisle’s mild contrition and ‘I had a bit of ego’ and a lot of rationalising from songwriter Charlotte Caffey, it seems pretty clear that money and success went to their heads and their spiky, spunky sorority was sold down the river.
The film makes it look like all these troubles are in the past and they are even performing together again and writing a new song but if you scratch the surface of the internet you’ll find there have been multiple lawsuits along the way. As Jane Wiedlin explained, they learned how to come on stage and make everything look happy, regardless of what was really going on backstage. She called it Robo-Go-Go.
And as for that terrible statistic at the start of this piece, Elwood doesn’t really go there. A few male music producers talk about how hard it was for all-female bands back then but there’s no exploration of why it’s still pretty shit. There’s comment on how shocking it is that The Go-Go’s aren’t in the hall of fame but, other than Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, there is little comment on The Go-Go’s legacy.
And sadly, this hasn’t made me like The Go-Go’s more.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.