The recent spate of music documentaries has given us behind-the-scenes access into everyone from Taylor Swift (Miss Americana) to the late Michael Hutchence (Mystify) to Joan Jett (Bad Reputation), with varying results. It’s easy, it seems, for filmmakers to rely on the model that VH1’s acclaimed Behind the Music series honed to perfection—relying primarily on archival clips and present-day interviews to hit the melodrama hard without really getting too deep or personal.
But where Miss Americana and Mystify succeeded (and Bad Reputation failed) was in their ability to reveal something new that completely changed the audience’s perspective. And that’s exactly what makes The Go-Go’s new documentary so memorable, too.
Directed by Alison Ellwood (American Jihad), The Go-Go’s (streaming on Showtime) not only ushers us through the band’s evolution in the late-70s L.A. punk scene through their disastrous breakup and beyond, but it also takes time throughout its 98-minute duration to let us in on plenty of secrets—not the salacious kind but the ones that take us into the fascinating world on the other side of the curtain. Along with learning what made the band so harmonious on-stage and off-, we hear from everyone involved (Martha Quinn, Kathleen Hanna, and Stewart Copeland are just a few), and the result is one of the more insightful and fascinating documentaries (music-based or otherwise) in recent years.
Any child of the 80s knows at least a few of their names—Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, and Gina Schock—and, of course, the hits, from “We Got the Beat” to “Vacation” to “Head Over Heels”. They were the first all-female band to write their own songs, play their own instruments, and have a number one album. And they’re still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (an egregious fact that we’re reminded of several times during Ellwood’s film). But have even the most devout Go-Go-heads of the world ever heard the names Margot Olavarria and Elissa Bello, the band’s original bassist and drummer? You will now. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
While the opening half-hour of The Go-Go’s uses ancient grainy footage and Polaroids to focus on the band’s evolution, we don’t really get to the meat of the film until the time the band makes it big in the early 80s—thanks in large part to manager Ginger Canzoneri, whose story could fill two hours just by itself. From fun facts (the band had to return the white towels they donned on the Beauty and the Beat album cover, because they couldn’t afford to keep them) to horrifying realities (Caffey and Wiedlin may have never made it past age 25 had they not been in the band), The Go-Go’s gives us everything and more—raw, often heart-wrenching, and brutally honest.
The band has indeed been eligible for Rock Hall induction for more than 15 years now, and when the dust settles on Ellwood’s documentary, it’s most obvious than ever what a glaring omission that is. (The film even posits a decent guess at the petulance behind it.) While fans can hope The Go-Go’s may finally help earn the ladies the recognition they deserve, there’s no denying that they are firmly in the realm of rock royalty. And (bonus!) they recorded a new song for the film just to put an exclamation point on it.