Sheffield Doc/Fest film review: The Go-Go’s
Highs and lows8.5
Matthew Turner | On 23, Jun 2020
Cast: Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Margot Olavarria
Watch The Go-Go’s online in the UK: Doc/Fest Selects
Sheffield Doc/Fest has gone online for 2020, with films streaming until 10th July – and others streaming alongside cinema screenings in the autumn. For more information, click here – or see our picks from the festival line-up here
Formed by Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin in 1978, The Go-Go’s made history as the first all-female band to write their own songs, play their own instruments and release a No 1 album. This extremely candid rock-doc charts The Go-Go’s story, from their early punk beginnings until the present day. As such, it’s terrifically entertaining, whether you’re a long-time fan of the band or a complete newcomer.
Directed by Alison Ellwood, the film allows the members of the band to tell their story in their own words, through a series of to-camera interviews. This includes original founder members Margot Olavarria and Elissa Bello, alongside the principal line-up of Carlisle (lead singer), Wiedlin (rhythm guitar), Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar and keyboards), Kathy Valentine (bass guitar) and Gina Schock (drums).
Ellwood has also assembled a wealth of archive material, including concert footage, TV appearances, music videos and old interviews, as well as news clippings and photographs. Indeed, Ellwood is handed something of a gift in that department, because it turns out Gina Schock has a huge collection of Polaroids she took at the time, including photos of each individual band member doing coke in their underwear.
Each of the band members are excellent value, and Ellwood’s editing gives the film a real sense of momentum as it charts their rise to fame, from their early punk beginnings onwards. One key point in their trajectory is the band’s lengthy tour of England, supporting Madness and The Specials in less-than-savoury venues (they vividly recall being spat at by members of the National Front). To that end, Ellwood occasionally includes talking head contributions from other voices, including members of the bands they supported and dedicated manager Gina Canzonieri, who sold all her possessions to fund the group’s England tour.
Depressingly, despite their success on the club scene – especially after their triumphant return from England, with a hit single under their belts – the band still struggled to get signed, with record producers seemingly unable to get their heads round the idea that an all-girl New Wave band might be a success. They were eventually signed by Miles Copeland (manager of The Police), who’s also good value in the talking head department.
The film is full of delightful highs – the concert footage really captures their energy and chemistry on stage and the material from their punk years is a real treat. It’s also packed with wonderful anecdotes, such as the fact that the reason they were frolicking in a Los Angeles fountain in one of their music videos is that they were desperately trying to get arrested, as they thought that would make a great ending. Between their retelling of the story and Ellwood’s direction, there’s a real sense of capturing the moment, notably during an anecdote about Sting (whom they were supporting at the time when they toured with The Police) very generously coming into their dressing room with champagne to toast their success when The Go-Go’s album surpassed The Police’s album in the charts.
However, the film doesn’t shy away from the lows, either. In particular, it’s remarkably honest (as the coke-snorting Polaroids indicate) about various band members’ drug and alcohol problems, as well as all the in-fighting (mostly over payment) that ultimately lead to the band’s first big break-up in 1985. Even though some of the events took place over thirty-five years ago, the collective pain and betrayal behind some of the band’s decisions really comes through, especially for Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine, the two band members who didn’t have songwriting credits.
Happily, the film ends on something of a high note, with the reveal that the band are effectively back together, all hatchets buried, playing reunion gigs and so on. As a parting note, Ellwood closes with an extremely pertinent question: given their still-unsurpassed history-making achievement, why haven’t The Go-Go’s been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? Why, indeed. Get on it, Hall of Fame committee.
The Go-Go’s is available to rent for £4.50 on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects, or as part of a £36 pass, until 10th July 2020.