Whether they were splashing around in a fountain or “waterskiing” in tutus and tiaras, the Go-Go’s always projected the image that they were up for anything. But after the band was burned by the VH1 series Behind the Music in a 2000 episode they felt was tawdry and soap opera-esque, participating in a documentary was a tough sell for lead singer Belinda Carlisle, drummer Gina Schock, bassist Kathy Valentine, rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, and lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey.
“Everybody was apprehensive about a documentary,” Schock says. “When we’re all dead and gone, we don’t want to leave something that is not going to be representing the band in a true and honest way that shows everything that’s important.”
It took some convincing, but director Alison Ellwood (History of the Eagles, American Jihad) pulled it off. “I told them, ‘If you’re honest with me, I’ll tell an honest story,’” she says. “We didn’t have to go into all the salacious tales of infighting. There’s a lot of drama without getting into the nitty gritty ugly details.”
Ellwood’s new film The Go-Go’s, which premieres Friday on Showtime, focuses on the band’s first seven years, ending with them breaking up—albeit temporarily—in 1985. The story is told through interviews with all five members; their devoted manager, Ginger Canzoneri; record execs; their contemporaries in the music scene, including former members of the band; and the musicians who came after them, like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. Extensive video footage and tons of images—many of them courtesy of Schock, the group’s unofficial photographer—give an inside look at the rise and fall of an iconic group.
“When you really think about what you’re doing, it’s kind of scary,” Belinda Carlisle tells Los Angeles. “We said to [Ellwood] that we’ll do it, but we want final cut. She said, ‘Uh uh, that’s not how it works.’ We trusted that she wouldn’t throw us under the bus or make us look bad or concentrate on the negative stuff. I’m so glad we committed to her because she really got us and did an amazing job.”
Within the first few minutes of The Go-Go’s, the band’s candy-coated image from the early MTV days is replaced with dyed hair, chalky faces, eyebrows plucked to oblivion, and the gritty trappings of the Los Angeles punk scene that birthed the group. The film details the evolution of their sound, an early tour of the UK playing to aggressive crowds, and the creation of classic songs like “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “Head Over Heels.” Stories of excessive partying and drug and alcohol binges are tempered by the group’s experience recording their first three albums, their camaraderie, and their antics. Anecdotal and amusing, there’s a personal feel to The Go-Go’s that makes it as amusing as it is interesting.
“There was so much joy,” Valentine tells Los Angeles. “That’s what I was expecting and hoping for in the documentary. What I didn’t know to expect and hope for was the amount of healing and forgiving and bonding that would happen for us. [Ellwood] managed to tap into an emotional bond that has always been there and sometimes it gets stretched thin, but this documentary really made that bond indestructible.”
The Go-Go’s explores lead guitarist-songwriter Caffey’s addiction issues, but skirts Carlisle’s and Valentine’s (which, granted, they elaborate on in great detail in their respective memoirs, Lips Unsealed and All I Ever Wanted). It also doesn’t spend any time on the group’s legal wrangling nor a distasteful video at the center of the Behind the Music episode, which is still making the rounds on YouTube. Even so, the documentary isn’t a rose-tinted portrayal of the band.
“It makes me feel so good about what we did,” says Caffey. “We all felt the same thing separately, and we talked about it. We really healed a lot from that documentary.”
“For a long time, I’ve been working really hard on gratitude and appreciation of the women in the band,” says Wiedlin, who penned the timely lyrics to “Club Zero,” the first new Go-Go’s song in two decades. “I know there would be no Go-Go’s without the five of us. All of us contributed our unique personalities and talents. We were so lucky, and are so lucky, to have each other. More important than any other relationship in my life has been my relationship with the band.”