The Go-Gos may have had their first pop hit singing “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but that is generally not the case in the new documentary that looks back at the history of the first true all-female rock band from their rise out of the Los Angeles punk scene to their spectacular crash and burn just seven years after they first began playing together.
For those with an interest in the early days of punk, director Alison Ellwood spends a decent portion of the film’s early run time defining the 1970s Los Angeles punk scene as a place where it was OK to be different, where the punk aesthetic had not yet quite codified into what we now regard today as “punk.” Of course, outside of punk circles, its adherents were looked at with suspicion and often downright loathing. But that nurturing community was the perfect incubator for a group of girls who barely knew how to play instruments to get together and form a band that would go on to become one of the biggest pop acts of the first half of the 1980s.
On its surface, the story of the Go-Gos is is a similar one to many a rock artist. They started out barely knowing what they were doing, playing crummy gigs in dive bars. Slowly working their way up through the Los Angeles music scene, they secured a gig as the house band at the famed Whisky a Go Go, opening for whatever big name came to town. That lead to England ska bands Madness and The Specials recruiting them to open on their tour of England. After facing down the rough UK audiences who were definitely not receptive to the idea of an all-girl pop band, they returned back to LA hardened and quickly took the local scene by storm.
But even the growing local buzz wasn’t enough to get the band a record deal until fledging label IRS Records took a chance on them. It was a bet that paid off big, as the band soon found themselves rocketing to stardom. But with that fame comes the usual pitfalls of pop music stardom. While The Go-Gos certainly full of stories about backstage partying and how sometimes egos and artistic inclinations can clash, the documentary also takes time to explore why the Go-Gos mattered, and still matters, as a band. As an outgrowth of their early punk do-it-yourself ethic, they were the first all-female rock band to not only play their own instruments but to write all of their own songs as well.
Director Ellwood does a good work of assembling archival footage and photos and combining it with new interviews with the principals from the band – Charlotte Caffey on lead guitar and keyboards, Belinda Carlisle on lead vocals, Gina Schock on drums, Kathy Valentine on bass guitar, and Jane Wiedlin on rhythm guitar – as well as a number of others germane to the Go-Gos story. The band members all seem to be generally nostalgic about the time period with little regret about how most things played out for them. And if some friendships within the group are not necessarily relatively intact, then there is at least with a respect between them all for having survived it together.
Matt Hauser’s arrangements of the band’s music for the film’s score deserves some mention, especially for the way he takes these pop songs and resets them into amore traditional film score-like context that often provides a counterpoint to what is being discussed on screen.
Like nearly all band documentaries, especially those where the subject is cooperating with the production on some level, there are likely to be certain omissions. While The Go-Gos is certainly upfront about the band’s drug and alcohol abuse and how that lead to tensions between the members, it does seem to forget to mention the times that Shock and Valentine individually sued the other members of the band over royalties and other band-related business. the film kind of zips past the handful of times that they would briefly reunite to record new material or go on a tour. This makes the present day reunion of the band seem more unique than perhaps it has been over their decades-long history. And when we see that they are together to record a new song that is just coincidentally being released as this documentary debuts on Showtime, it is hard to shake the feeling that the preceding hour and a half or so has been nothing but a long-form, though entertaining, piece of promotion for that tune.