The Go-Go’s Discuss Unsealing Lips and Opening Up Hearts for a Candid and Rousing Documentary

In a revealing Q&A, all five members discuss the Showtime doc about the band, the perils and joys of still being family after 40-plus years, and their differing reactions to the ongoing Hall of Fame shutout mystery.

The Go-Gos’ lips are very unsealed, thankfully, in the documentary named after the band that debuts on Showtime July 31. It’ll be all the reunion that anyone gets for now: a brief summer tour that was announced when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January is, of course, on hold until Go-Go music can safely make the world dance again. But the film from director Alison Ellwood (“Laurel Canyon”) will be a happy — if occasionally harrowing — occasion for fans of a band that has remained intermittently intact since “We Got the Beat” took the world by storm 40 years ago.

Variety spoke individually with all five members of the group about the film, their place in history and the perennial subject of why they aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — something Ellwood’s film might finally joyfully cajole certain committees into making happen.

VARIETY: How hard was it getting all five of you on board to participate in a documentary?

Gina Schock: I wanted to do it from the beginning. I thought it was an important piece of the puzzle. Some people wanted to do it and some people didn’t want to. We have a lot to say about how this all happened for us, this crazy, magical ride that we sit on. It seems impossible, but it did happen, and here we are to tell this crazy-ass story. But it all came down to Alison. The minute her name was brought up, I had just watched a documentary called “American Jihad,” and oddly enough it was Allison who directed that. I was like, “You guys, you’ve got to see her last documentary. It’s incredible.”

Belinda Carlisle: For me, it was the Eagles documentary (“History of the Eagles”). I saw that and I just thought it was amazing, and looked to see who the director was. And I thought, if we were going to do a documentary, she would be my first choice. So I encouraged the other girls to watch the documentary, and they loved it. And then our management approached her, and she wanted to, so it was one of the things that was meant to work out.

But it took at least a year to decide whether we wanted to do it, because it’s great to cement the legacy, but it’s something that’s going to be out there forever. I think all of us were vacillating back and forth as to whether we should. When Alison told us, “Well, no, you can’t have final edit” — because that’s of course what we wanted — we finally were smart about it and let the experts do their job and hoped for the best. We all thought she was trustworthy and that, being a woman, she wasn’t going to take the low road. It shows that there are complicated dynamics, and always have been. Knowing each other since we were 17 and 18 years old, they’re the longest relationships that we’ve had in our lives, really.

You had done a VH1 “Behind the Music” back around the turn of the century that left a bad taste in your mouths.

Schock: What a waste of time. Nobody’s a fan of that in our band. It made everybody gun-shy about ever doing anything like that again.

Charlotte Caffey: That was kind of a negative piece, and there is a whole other side to this band of hysterically funny, very smart, really talented and strong women. What we went through like in the beginning… we weren’t f—ing around. It was hardcore and gnarly. Then we had a big hit record, and more than likely most people thought, “Oh, who put that band together?” We did. No one told us what to wear, what to write, what to play. When they tried to, we shot ‘em down easily. It’s great to see that part of it portrayed.

Kathy Valentine: Watching this for the first time was really nerve wracking, because I had advocated strongly to do the documentary. So I felt even more like, okay, I hope this is really good because I was really kind of thinking it really needed to happen. When you’re one of the ones pushing and going “Come on, come on, come on,” you really want not to be the one that pushed (in the wrong direction). It was very emotional.

It’s surprising, maybe, that the whole first half of the movie is about the Go-Go’s on the original L.A. punk scene, pre-stardom.

Jane Wiedlin: Personally I’m happy that the movie focuses on the punk-rock years, which I think are the most interesting years, and also the most unknown years for our band.

Schock: We definitely were a punk band. When we got in with our producer, Richard Gottehrer, he slowed everything down so that you could actually hear what Belinda was singing. You could hear the lyrics, and you could follow these great melodies that were hidden because it was flying by so fast, you didn’t have time to absorb it.

Valentine: The band has been more open to embracing the beginnings. I remember when we were first successful, the band didn’t talk a lot about the punk roots. But in the last 10 to 20 years… I mean, that’s amazing that we have such a huge career span that we can even say “the last 10 or 20 years” and you’re just talking a slice of it. But in these years, the band has been a lot more eager and happy and proud of the punk roots. And I was really surprised that Alison, the director, was not that aware of that.

Carlisle: The most exciting time for the Go-Go’s were those times of driving your stuff to the Whisky, getting your amps out of the car and performing for 20 people in the audience. I mean, it was never 20 people for the Go-Go’s, but you know what I mean? Those early days were the best times. Then it got more complicated as it became a business, as the documentary says. But the best times were the times leading up to going to the UK and opening for Madness.

Caffey: It’s like our little thing: you can take the girl out of the punk, but you can’t take the punk out of the girl. Because we are all still those people that we were back then.

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The Go-Go’s in their original late ’70s punk days Courtesy of Melanie Nissen

Jane, you talk in the movie about how, when you adopted punk hair and fashion, you saw people crossing the street because you made them nervous… and how great that you feel great.

Wiedlin: I came from a large Catholic family in the Midwest, and I was raised under that “seen and not heard” thing, that girls never get mad and don’t say their opinion. And I’m very short and little, so I never felt any power. I had anger deep down inside that I didn’t even know was there, because it had been so shoved down by my upbringing. The punk movement was so important to me to grow up and become myself.

The end of the movie depicts you working on the band’s first new song since 2001, “Club Zero.” What’s the message of that song?

Wiedlin: It’s about women seizing their power and, in my brain, going back to my punk-rock roots and saying, “I don’t give a f— what society, other people, men think about me. I’m me, and you guys are gonna accept that.” And then it became like a band thing. If you don’t understand that women are taking power, we don’t care. We just are. Because to me, the message of the movie is about female empowerment. And I don’t think we really ever claimed that until now. So I really have to thank the director, Alison, for helping us do that.

Why was it hard to take on the mantle of feminism back in your original heyday?

Wiedlin: Well, at the time feminism was a dirty word. I would say feminism then was the equivalent of how people use the word “socialism” today — like, “Oh my God! It’s the boogy-monster.” People would ask if we were feminists and we would routinely say, “No, we’re not feminists.” Of course we were. We were not manipulated or controlled by men. Just because we couldn’t use the word didn’t mean that we weren’t feminists. … It’s really hard for people of today to grasp that times were so different then — although to be honest, things haven’t really changed that much in some ways. Other than the Bangles, there hasn’t been another really successful all-girl band. And we played all our own instruments and wrote all our songs, so even that is 100% unique to us in 2020.

Valentine: When I picked up a guitar, I thought I was the only girl in the world that picked up a Les. I didn’t know that freaking Goldie and the Gingerbreads had a band when they were like 1961, when I was 2 or 3 years old. I didn’t know that the Quatro sisters had a band in Detroit doing their own songs in 1964. None of that was celebrated, or I think there would have been a lot more girls in the ‘70s picking up guitars than did — a lot more Runaways and Go-Go’s. Thank God for the punk scene and what it did for women.

Wiedlin: We also influenced some really incredible male musicians. I know for a fact that both Kurt Cobain and Billie Joe Armstrong were influenced by the Go-Go’s, and to me, those are the two biggest songwriters, from the ‘90s onward.

Was it easy to settle into the candor that’s revealed in the film about band dynamics?

Carlisle: I’ve always been honest in my interviews to a fault, and sometimes it’s backfired, but that’s just been the way that I’ve been. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I always have. I was born contrary. I still refer to myself as a contrarian. That’s just part of my character. So I mean, of course, after the Go-Go’s and having this career and considered sort of an ice princess or a manufactured pop commodity or whatever, I was still me, and I never deviated from that. Coming from the music scene in the late ‘70s and living through, well, basically at least 10 lifetimes, for me to talk about drugs or a lot of that stuff is no big deal. The stuff that is a big deal, I won’t talk about, like familial stuff — that’s taboo. But everything else pretty much is an open book.

The film is really balanced, and I liked that, because people have a tendency to focus on the front person, and the Go-Go’s were always a collective energy. I was really, really happy that Charlotte, who always has sort of been the silent person behind the band, got a lot of time. Jane got to tell her story. Everybody got to have their take on the events. I knew it wasn’t going to be like “Behind the Music,” which was mostly about dirty laundry. But I was a little bit scared to watch it for the first time. It did sit there for a few days in my inbox.

Is there anything that stands out to you?

Carlisle: There’s a part in the documentary when Jane talks about wanting to sing that one song, and someone said to her, “What makes you think you can be a lead singer?” And I was thinking, “Oh my God, I hope it wasn’t me that said that.” In retrospect, I was sort of sad for the lack of empathy that I had back then. But we were all guilty of that, I think. Going through the kind of success that we went through at such a young age, I think that we were probably very careless with each other’s feelings. Now, if Jane wanted to sing a song, I would say, “Of course. You wrote the song, it feels dear to you, and you should sing it.” But back then, everybody had their roles and was very protective about their position in the band. Although I do think that basically we’re all the same people that we were back then, all of our life experiences have made us better people in the end — more caring, more empathetic, wiser. I don’t really have a whole lot of regrets, but there are a few, as far as the band goes: I think for me it would be probably be my lack of empathy back then.

You have a moment where you admit that, in your solo career, your ego got a slapping down.

Carlisle: Yeah. Well, I think we could all use it once in a while, huh? [Laughs.] I definitely was not humble back then, I’d say. But I learned a lot and I’ve had a really, really blessed career in life. If it wasn’t for the Go-Go’s, I wouldn’t be talking to you from Japan, and I realize that. Everybody would probably say the same thing that I’m saying right now, I’m sure.

Valentine: I might’ve had an advantage in thinking about this, because for three years, I was working on a memoir (“All I Ever Wanted,” released this year), and there are reflections that you don’t necessarily sit around and meditate on, but come out if you’re writing about them. One of my strongest takeaways was just how basically how immature we were. I had the emotional maturity of a teenager all the way up to age 26 or 27, and that’s largely because being in a band, you don’t really have to grow up. You have someone paying your bills and telling you where to be. So when you don’t have emotional maturity, it’s really hard to have that sense of empathy and compassion that adults tend to get, unless they’re psychopaths. [Laughs.] We didn’t really know how to handle each other’s feelings, because we didn’t know how to handle our own, while we were carrying on and having the ride of our lives. That’s going to catch up to you eventually.

The film doesn’t hone in on the sensational aspects, but it doesn’t stint on what led to the initial breakup in the mid-‘80s, either. And it doesn’t try to make all of the bad behavior seem dark and despondent — there is a sense that some of the so-called debauchery was fun, before it wasn’t. But Charlotte, you’ve been a very vocal advocate for sobriety, after being an addict for much of the band’s original tenure. You’re clear in the film that things would not have gone well for you if the band had continued then.

Caffey: As of February 1, I had 35 years of real sobriety — not just like the fake kind where it’s like, “Well, you know, sometimes I just drink and smoke pot.” No, no, no. I stopped everything and I really dedicated my life to being away from all that crap, because it was maybe not the best place for me to be.

Jane had left (after the “Talk Show” album, their third and last for many years) and then we were struggling to write songs; all the songs (for a would-be fourth album) were horrible. I couldn’t stand the songs. The best song was “Mad About You,” that Paula (Jean Brown, Wiedlin’s short-lived replacement) had brought in, which Belinda took with her when she quit the band, which was great. She made a great big hit out of it, and it was just perfect for her. And I just knew being around everybody that … this was the time when I couldn’t choose the band, I had to choose myself. And it was really clear to me. And I listened and heard that. Like when I was getting sober, I mean, when I first initially got into the rehab, I really heard about the focus that requires. It’s like the focus it required in the beginning of the band, when we gave up everything — boyfriends, apartments — to just be focused on the band only. It’s the same thing that I had to do (to get sober): I had to focus on myself only. I didn’t trust myself. I had to get a foundation. I had to get something that I could hold onto.

Eventually, the following year, though, in 1986, I went on tour with Belinda – against the advice of people that I knew. They were like, “It might be too soon.” I said, “You know what? I’ve got to go out and see. This is part of my life. I’ve got to go out and see if I can tour.” And I did, and it was great and it was fine, and I really was able to really enjoy being on tour and not having that horrible weight around my neck of all the drugs and alcohol and partying. I was like, I’m so over that. … I feel like, wow, if I went through that and now I’m talking about it and helping somebody by sharing my story, great. That makes me very happy.

Jane, was it daunting to talk about your experiences with depression in the film?

Wiedlin: Actually, I think my whole being since the punk era has gravitated towards one easy statement, which is: Fear is the arrow pointing you in your direction. And so what I’ve tried to do my whole life and my whole career is be really honest and not withhold, because I just don’t find anything interesting about people that withhold themselves and withhold their truth. That’s always been something about me. As far as talking about my bipolar diagnosis, I’m not sure why that came out of me. I guess I just felt really comfortable with Alison. She’s a very nurturing person, and I almost didn’t feel like it was an interview. It was more like a conversation. I don’t even remember how it came up, but all of a sudden I was talking about that and my hospitalization. I was really candid about that, because it’s still pretty fresh to me. A “breakdown” sounds like a dramatic way of putting it. It was a few years ago, and it’s relatively fresh in my mind, and it became such a huge sort of landmark in my life. Because I had lived every single day of my life since I was 11 thinking about suicide — every single day. And… It’s hard to talk about. But when you finally get relief from that, it was such a happy thing that ended up happening for me. It’s just such a relief. And to be alive at the age of 61 to me is a miracle because I never thought I’d see adulthood.

The word “family” comes up a lot in the film.

Valentine: That was definitely when I was looking for, the family that I never had. So that kind of hits it on the nail for me.

Schock: We’re family, like it or not. I can’t tell you how many times we were going to break up for this or that, and then something would just bring us back together. It’s like, I give up, you know? We are a family. Don’t try to fight it anymore. You might not like everybody in your family, but you always love ‘em.

Valentine: The remarkable thing to me isn’t so much that we broke up, but that despite breaking up twice, including the time when I was out of the band, we’ve always drawn back to each other and continued to carry on. There is a fundamental bond that really, so far, hasn’t been severable. Nobody makes me laugh as much as being with the band. We have a manic, fun thing — and it’s quite volatile. With the decades and getting older, everybody’s had to come to a place where they accept as it is. Maybe there are people in the band that would like to do more or make a new record or do this or that. I mean, there’s no shortage of opportunities. It’s not like we’re out there cleaning up. I mean, we leave a lot of money on the table. We could be out there doing a hell of a lot more. But I think you get to a place where you just don’t want to go around trying to get people to do s—, you know? You get to a point where you just want to accept what it is and celebrate what it is. 

I know the band did a farewell tour in 2016, but it sure didn’t feel like that to me. You know, I wasn’t there. (The tour was during a period when there was a legal dispute between Valentine and other members.) It didn’t feel like a farewell tour to me. And then a half a year later, we have a Broadway musical opening (“Head Over Heels”). That doesn’t seem like the end, when you have a musical on Broadway. And then we’re playing together at one of the most prestigious venues in the world (two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in 2018), and that doesn’t feel like the end. And then there’s a documentary. So I would think that the story is going to recur in increasingly more positive, wonderful ways, because nobody’s really trying to do anything other than just be grateful and accept what we have. And we don’t always get a lot of credit, so it’s great to have this documentary to validate that external manifestation of what we have been feeling for many years. And I think the audience picks up that there’s something that draws us back to each other.

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The Go-Go’s: Kathy Valentine, Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock and Charlotte Caffey
Variety Sundance Studio – 24 Jan 2020
John Salangsang/Variety/Shutterstock

The Go-Go’s catalog was turned into a Broadway musical-comedy, “Head Over Heels,” that also had a good national touring run. It was an Elizabethan sex farce, but some people thought it would actually be about the Go-Go’s, like “Jersey Boys.” It’s hard to imagine how that would be pulled off — some of the choices Ellwood had to make for a documentary would be tougher for a stage musical.

Caffey: Can you imagine? What aspect of our story do you tell? Just the aspect where we had a No. 1 record and that part of it? You’d have to do something really creative to depict all the darkness, because it’s kind of a pedestrian story, if you think about it: “Oh, they did drugs and drinking. And they argued.” I mean, what band hasn’t? Metallica went into therapy together. You kind of have to like look at it and go, well, that’s just the nature of a relationship.

It’s a tricky thing, and we were so relieved and happy when it got to (be set in) 15th century Arcadia. We were giggling and hysterical because it was like, this is so bizarre and great. Come on! I love that Tom Kitt orchestrated and arranged the songs. I loved every aspect of the staging. But also what really stood out was the audience reaction. I saw it many times in New York, and people were screaming and cheering, and it made me so happy to see that, because it really was a joyous piece. And it brought out some of the songs that really didn’t see the light of day. That last record, “God Bless the Go-Go’s” (a reunion album in 2001) got the horrible (timing). It was right around 9/11, and everyone had a lot more important things than to think about that record. But there are songs from that record that were highlighted in the musical that I loved.

How crazy is it that you’re never been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? In the movie, Belinda, you suggest that maybe it goes back to when your then-manager Ginger Canzoneri made an angry phone call to Jann Wenner after the infamous “Go-Go’s Put Out” cover headline, and he was affronted and hung up.

Carlisle: At this point, to be 150% honest with you, I could give a fuck. I mean, it would be nice, but I really don’t care. I know what we accomplished, and I’m really, really proud of that, and I don’t need the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s validation for that. I do think it’s something that somebody said, or that Ginger possibly said to Jann Wenner. Because it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, the band was innovative and groundbreaking and the first of its kind in so many different ways. But I’m honestly way beyond caring about it now.

Valentine: Some people in the band don’t care at all. I care. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I would love that. I think it’ll happen. It’s just a matter of time. Because it’s going to be weird to put in some other women from the ‘90s and beyond, without acknowledging us, because a lot of them became musicians because they saw the Go-Go’s. But I feel like Suzi Quatro should be in there, you know? I know that for the Runaways, and I know that for myself, it never even occurred to me that I can plug my freaking guitar into an amp and be in a band till I saw Suzi Quatro. That is worthy. Women in music, we get to have our history regardless of how it looks to men. And maybe if it was noted and was celebrated, maybe we’d be seeing more all-women bands or all-female bands. Maybe we’d be seeing more trailblazers. But when the history isn’t acknowledged, it kind of puts a blanket or a diffusion over the entire sector.

Schock: I actually sit on the fence about it. Part of me is like, f— you. How dare you? And there’s another part of me that feels like we really paid our dues, and if they can’t see that, if they don’t see what our contribution is, I don’t know what to say. They’re gonna have to figure it out, man. Anybody that you talk to could definitely tell you what we constantly contributed as a band, in the industry for women, number one, and just in great songwriting — come on! But it wouldn’t be in the typical fashion of the Go-Go’s that anything goes easily. It always has to be a struggle. But we get s— done.