In the terrific documentary “The Go-Go’s,” there’s a tasty clip of the Go-Go’s playing an early club gig in 1979, when they were part of the L.A. punk scene. They wear bushy black hair and pale white makeup (with rouge!), as if they were trying to be mannequin versions of Darby Crash, and they have the primitive rickety sound of people who were only just learning to play their instruments. Yet despite the raw aura, the gift that would take them far comes through — in the contrapuntal singing, the wobbly vibrance of their hooks. They had yet to figure out what they were doing, but seeing these young women up on stage in the ratty club milieu, you can already tell that history had a plan for them.
“The Go-Go’s” is a classically crafted rock doc that shows you, more or less, everything you want to know about this game-changing, grinning-and-bopping, God-do-you-miss-the-’80s-or-what? punk-pop band. And it does so by spotlighting how the revolutionary aspect of their journey was embedded in everything they did. The Go-Go’s were the first band composed entirely of women who wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and scored number-one hits. Five years earlier, Heart had presented the then-exotic image of a woman playing hard-rock guitar, and the Runaways were an all-girl band, but they were the product of a Svengali packager; they only looked like indie punks. (Plus, their music was mostly not very good.)
The Go-Go’s were the first hugely popular female band who were their own band. And that mattered not just in terms of empowerment but aesthetics. They rocked but sounded like no one else ever had. They had a kinetic effervescence, with a pulse that shimmered and spangled. They may have started out as punks, but the inspirations they looked to were less Patti Smith than the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las.
Last year, the big rock doc out of Sundance was “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” but when that movie came out very few people went to see it. On the other hand, the far less heralded “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” which played at the Tribeca Film Festival, connected in an impressive way, making $4.2 million (six times what the Crosby doc did), and it was easy to see why. As popular as Linda Ronstadt always was, this movie about her gave you something to discover.
“The Go-Go’s” has the chance to connect with audiences in that same way, because like the Ronstadt doc it’s a movie of the moment. It’s just the kind of ’80s nostalgia we need — a film that captures how a band like the Go-Go’s, in the midst of making some timeless songs, changed the pop firmament even more than we knew at the time. The band’s lead guitarist, Charlotte Caffey, explains how she wrote their first real song, “We Got the Beat,” in five minutes while sitting at home watching “The Twilight Zone.” She got a riff in her head, and it was like the “Twilight Zone” theme turned into a groove. There was a sly rebellion embedded in the we/they lyrics of “We Got the Beat.” The “they,” in the line “They got the beat,” refers to “the people walkin’ down the street,” but mythologically it refers to men. They got the beat. But by the time the song is over, the baton has passed. We got the beat. The girls have it now.
Honing their chops, the Go-Go’s became the house band at the Whisky a Go Go, opening for whoever came to town, like the British ska bands Madness and the Specials, who invited them to tour England with them. The Go-Go’s’ manager, Ginger Canzonieri, pawned her jewelry and sold her car to get the girls over to London. The Specials and Madness attracted a rough crowd of white-nationalist skinheads, who hated the opening act. (We hear a clip of audiences booing them and shouting “Show your tits!”) But the tour toughened them up and taught them how to be a band the way Hamburg did for the Beatles.
Returning to L.A., they played their first gig at the Starwood and woke everyone up. They were now as much of a party band as the B-52’s. The Go-Go’s’ sound had fused when Gina Schock became the drummer, bringing the songs a bam-bam-bam forwardness that’s there even on a cut as peppy as “Vacation.” (She also brought them her Tom Petty-as-cool-girl mystique.) And no one danced like Belinda Carlisle. She moved with a slightly awkward yet mesmerizing robot sway, like the punkette version of something out of an Ann-Margret movie.
Yet even after all that, they were still turned down by the major record labels, who looked at these women onstage and couldn’t quite compute the optics. (One rejection letter ends: “Unfortunately, the Go-Go’s aren’t the type of band we’re interested in signing. Best of luck with your enterprising girl band!”) They were ultimately signed by Miles Copeland, manager of the Police, who had started I.R.S. Records and was looking for new American sounds.
There are great stories sprinkled throughout “The Go-Go’s,” like one about how the band bought fancy towels at Macy’s to use for the ironic spa cover of “Beauty and the Beat,” then returned them after the shoot because they couldn’t afford them. Or how they shot the shoestring video for “Our Lips Are Sealed” by doing everything they could to get arrested (that’s why they’re cavorting in that fountain), or the story of how they drank all day before their “Saturday Night Live” appearance and were “cross-eyed drunk” during it. Or the saga of Charlotte’s heroin addiction (which she was somehow able to keep secret). Or how betrayed they all felt by the Rolling Stone cover that dressed them in Hanes underwear (which they thought was an anti-sexy statement) only to hit them with the headline “Go-Go’s Put Out.” Or an anecdote about how Sting, on the tour where the Go-Go’s opened for the Police, walked into their dressing room with champagne to toast the fact that the Go-Go’s’ album had climbed to number one (surpassing the Police’s hit album). Or the record producer Richard Gottehrer’s description of how he got them to slow down their songs, not to mention his shock at hearing them finish a recording session by saying, “Let’s go get some booty tonight.”
The film’s director, Alison Ellwood, assembles a wealth of archival material and does probing interviews with the band members, each of whom looks back with her own version of battle-scarred nostalgia. The rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, with her pixie charisma, is notably eloquent in her descriptions of how the Go-Go’s saw themselves as sisters and had each other’s backs…until they didn’t. It was the pulse of their success that began to get in the way. They didn’t have enough time to write their second album, they ditched their devoted manager for a corporate agency that wound up not coming through for them, and then there were the fights over income distribution, when it turned out that the real money came from songwriting. (Belinda Carlisle and Gina Schock were the lowest paid members.) Is it any wonder that all hell broke loose when Jane announced she wanted to sing lead?
The Go-Go’s flamed out pretty quickly, after only three albums — and on that third one, “Talk Show,” the band members sounded like they were already halfway out the door. In an industry that was less corrupt, and that perhaps put less pressure on a band like the Go-Go’s to be stars and babes at the same time, one can imagine them lasting much longer, especially given that the incandescent singles from Belinda Carlisle’s solo career (“Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” “Mad About You”) could easily have been Go-Go’s songs. Yet in the fresh bopping beauty of their punk romantic sound, they kicked open a door of perception. They said to a generation: We got the beat, and you can too.