When the Los Angeles based band the Go-Go’s was at the top of the rock world in the 1980s, there were easy labels to describe the five young women who were the first all-female band to play their own instruments, write their own songs and hit No. 1 on the charts.
“They would always describe us as cute, bubbly and effervescent,” lead singer Belinda Carlisle said at theWrap’s studio at Sundance Film Festival, where director Alison Ellwood’s documentary “The Go-Go’s” premiered in January. “It was very superficial and it didn’t describe who we really are.”
“It’s such a ready-made hook,” bassist Kathy Valentine added. “It fits into the general myth of Cinderella and Prince Charming. We were Cinderella and the public was Prince Charming, and they just embraced the myth of this scrappy little band. It fit with the archetypes — the gender boxes, I like to call them.”
Ellwood’s film breaks the archetypes and describes who the Go-Go’s really were: a tough band of onetime punk-rock misfits whose cleaned-up music was a pop delight, but whose success ended prematurely with infighting and drug addiction.
In a Wrap review of the film, Todd Gilchrist wrote, “‘The Go-Go’s’ tackles the seminal all-female ’80s rock band with such honesty, openness and effervescence that it not only rises above that clichéd, almost telegraphed arc but transcends the ranks of other music documentaries to offer a story you desperately want to keep watching, even when you already know where it’s going.”
And as someone who absolutely knew where the film was going, I can vouch for the accuracy of Gilchrist’s words. Mind you, I’m biased: I’ve known the Go-Go’s since 1981, before the Sundance Film Festival existed, when I interviewed them for the Los Angeles Times as their debut album, “Beauty and the Beat,” was about to be released. The following year, I went on the road with them and wrote their first Rolling Stone magazine cover story; it sported a cover photo of them in white underwear with the dismissive headline, “Go-Go’s Put Out,” which is discussed in the film.
The band — Carlisle, Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Jane Wiedlin — talked about that in theWrap studio, which was the first time in decades I’d seen them together as a group. They also discussed the difficult parts of making and then viewing the documentary, including scenes where their original manager, Ginger Canzoneri, describes being cast aside for a big-name management firm that remains unnamed in the film (but, Schock admitted in this interview, was Irving Azoff’s Front Line management company).
“As you grow up and as you get older, you learn about empathy, and I think there was a lot of lack of it, certainly on my part,” Carlisle said of the decision to push out Canzoneri. “That part of the documentary did make me feel really bad.”
“We were kind of brats for a while there,” Schock added.
“It’s not an excuse, but we were working our asses off,” Caffey said. “And when you don’t have that balance in your life, it can really mess with you. That’s not an excuse for bad behavior, but it affected us, all in different ways.”
Making the film, though, has brought the band closer as they prepare for a summer tour together. “The documentary has opened up many other levels of healing and forgiveness that I think are really important for us as we go on,” Valentine said. “It’s so important to let go of the old stuff and embrace what we are.”
“We’ve gotten grateful,” Shock said. “I think that’s the word.”
“The Go-Go’s” will air on Showtime but also went to Sundance looking for theatrical distribution.
See more of the conversation in the video above.