The Sundance Film Festival will host the premiere this weekend of a documentary about one of the great original L.A. punk bands — we’re speaking, of course, of the Go-Go’s. Or maybe we should forego that “of course,” since probably not a huge percentage of rock fans remember the pioneering female band as seminal punks, per se. That they did emerge from that scrappy scene is one of the joys of discovery (or rediscovery, for Hollywood scenesters of a certain age) in “The Go-Go’s,” the doc that has a spotlight premiere at the Utah fest Friday night.
“The band has been more open to embracing our beginnings,” says bassist Kathy Valentine. “I remember when we were first successful, the band didn’t talk a lot about the punk roots, and often in interviews we would say ‘Well, the songs were always catchy pop songs. We just played them real fast at first and we weren’t great musicians.’ It wasn’t like a conscious ‘Let’s downplay this’; I think sometimes you just try to embrace where you’re at. But in the last 10 to 20 years — that’s amazing that I can say ‘the last 10 or 20 years’ and I’m just talking about a slice of our career span —the band has been a lot more happy and proud about the punk roots. And I was really surprised that Alison Ellwood, our director, was not that aware of that. That shows there’s probably a huge audience that wasn’t there that doesn’t know it, either.”
Those beginnings are very much evoked in the poster art for the Go-Go’s, which the band and producers are unveiling exclusively via Variety, on the eve of the film’s Sundance premiere.
What may be unfortunately much better known than the group’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s rise is its mid-1980s fall, thanks to a 2000 episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” that most of the band members came to regret participating in. The new documentary is the antithesis of that in many ways — although there’s some sex and drugs to go with the rock ‘n’ roll — and its existence was either a help or a hindrance in getting everyone to agree to participate in this new, more encompassing doc, depending on who you talk with.
“After seeing that, why would anybody want to do anything else on film?” says drummer Gina Schock. “No matter what say and do, somebody else is going to edit all this, and it’s going to come out with their vision, not yours. We didn’t like the way that our ‘Behind the Music’ came out at all, to say the least, and so it made everybody kind of gun-shy about ever doing anything like that again. 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.’ Everybody learned to trust her.”
Belinda Carlisle was right in front in pushing Ellwood as a candidate. “For me, it was the Eagles documentary [2013’s acclaimed “History of the Eagles”]. I saw that and thought it was amazing and looked to see who the director was,” says the singer. “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 when she said ‘Yes,’ it was like, ‘Uh-oh, do we really want to do this?’ Some of the girls were gung-ho from the beginning. I was like, ‘Well, it’s great to cement the legacy, but at the same time, it’s something that’s going to be out there forever.’ The usual Go-Go’s fashion would be for us to manage to mess everything up. So when Alison told us, ‘Well, no, you can’t have final edit’ — because that’s of course what we wanted, to have the final say on what’s in there and what isn’t — and she said no, we actually were smart about it this time and let the experts do what they know how to do best and just left them alone.”
Ellwood is accomplished and independent enough as a filmmaker to want and get final cut — which is not necessarily the norm, by any means, in music docs — but there was also a practical reason for denying it to the band. “You can’t give final cut to five different people. You’d never finish the movie!” says the director. “But they trusted me and I trusted them, and I feel like what we have feels honest as a result. It doesn’t feel sugarcoated, but you do go on this fun, crazy journey with them, and they get to reflect on it — and they wrote a new song [their first as a group since 2001], which is super cool.”
Fans of rock docs still marvel at how Ellwood got as famously controlling a group of people as the Eagles to sign off on a warts-and-all film… and that the band liked it as much as everyone else. “It was the same deal with the Eagles as with the Go-Go’s, which is that we’re not gonna do it if you guys want to sugarcoat it. In fact with that one, Joe Walsh, when he saw the first cut, he said, ‘S—, I didn’t know we could be that honest. I want to do another interview.’” Ellwood laughs. “So we did a second one with him.”
David Blackman, Universal Music Group’s head of film & television development, is an executive producer on the doc. He’s in charge of a slate of music films that have unusual integrity for the genre, but is aware that a more sophisticated part of the viewing public is always going to be suspicious that authorized-biography movies will be glorified EPKs, until they prove themselves otherwise, especially when it’s not just the artists perhaps wanting to look good but the parent company wanting to stir interest in catalogs.
“I’m very hypersensitive to that, obviously,” says Blackman. “One of the answers I would say to that is: Look at the filmmakers we work with, and those are filmmakers that have a real point of view, whether it’s Ron Howard on Pavarotti or Alison on this movie. Frank Marshall’s directing a Bee Gees film for us right now. We have Todd Haynes directing a Velvet Underground film. We’re really careful. These are filmmakers of world-class quality who have a real point of view of the story they want to tell that we get excited about. We’re not telling them what to do.”
Blackman says that “there’s a lot of sales energy around Sundance” for “The Go-Go’s.” The film is already tentatively slated to be seen on Showtime in the fall, but the plan is to sell theatrical rights after it bows at Sundance with the hope of pushing it onto the big screen in the summer, right around the time the group is doing a handful of select reunion gigs in celebration of the movie.
Looking at the just-announced concert lineup for the summer, some might say, didn’t the Go-Go’s already do a farewell tour in 2016? They did, indeed, but there were no promises or threats about not doing isolated gigs in the future. They played the Hollywood Bowl in honor of the musical comedy “Head Over Heels” opening on Broadway a year and a half ago, and this limited run is seen as being in a similarly celebratory vein.
Says guitarist Charlotte Caffey, “It’s not a full-scale tour; it’s like 12 dates. We did retire from actual touring-touring, but this (film) is a special event and it deserves some dates, so we decided to do ‘em.” Schock, meanwhile. is one of the band members who’d like it to be a less limited run: “Quite frankly, I wish we could do more shows,” says the drummer, who’s still as enthusiastic about playing live as she was when she first saw Led Zeppelin opening for the Who and decided that’s what she wanted to do with her life. “I always want to be touring.”
Caffey says that any disagreements are “just the nature of 40 years. It’s a marriage, you know — think about it. It’s like being in a relationship for 40 years; there’s bound to be serious arguments and disagreements. And I mean, it’s all happened, but that’s not what the film is about. If people are hoping for that, they’re going to be highly disappointed. ‘Behind the Music’ dealt with all that nonsense. And there is a whole other side to this band of hysterically funny people — all of us — and very smart and really talented and strong women. I’m really glad this part of the story is being told, because we had a big hit record and more than likely most people thought, ‘Oh, who put that band together?’ Well, nobody did. And no one told us what to wear or what to write or what to play. And when they tried to, we shot ‘em down easily.”
Says Valentine of the off-again, on-again history of the Go-Go’s: “Nobody makes me laugh as much as being with the band. And we have a kind of just manic, fun thing — and it’s quite volatile. But I think everybody’s come to a place where they accept it as 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. [Valentine was engaged in litigation with the group at that point, subsequently settled.] And then it 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 [the Hollywood Bowl, at which point Valentine had rejoined the group], and thatdoesn’t feel like the end. And now 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 it’s very important to me that we have that together because we do get dismissed and overlooked a lot in the world.”
Could she mean the Go-Go’s not ever having been nominated for, much less inducted into, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? In a world gone mad, not much is crazier than the fact that the only all-female band ever to have a No. 1 album — still — hasn’t been put up for consideration on that fact alone, even before taking into account the records themselves, which to this day have a strikingly original sound and songwriting content that still holds up.
Carlisle has a moment in the movie where she recounts how their manager angrily called Jann Wenner about Rolling Stone’s infamous “Go-Go’s Put Out” headline, and how he hung up on her when he realized she was calling to excoriate him, not offer profuse thanks for the cover. She’s only half-joking when she supposes that, with Wenner at the helm of the Hall of Fame until recently, maybe that’s the reason they haven’t gotten their clear due.
Says Schock, regarding the ongoing Hall of Fame snub. “I actually sit on the fence about it. Part of me is like, f— you. How dare you? And then the other part of me is like, wow, you know, this really should happen. I don’t understand why this hasn’t happened, and I hope that it does. We really paid our dues, and if they can’t see that, if they don’t see what our contribution is, they’re gonna have to figure it out, man. But anybody that you talk to could definitely tell you what we constantly contributed as a band, in the industry for women, number one — the obvious thing. There’s some great songwriting. I mean, come on! Things have never been easy for us, from the beginning. So why should it start being easy now? It wouldn’t be in the typical fashion of the Go-Go’s that anything isn’t a struggle. But we get s— done.”
The documentary couldn’t be a better calling card for the Go-Go’s credentials for the Hall of Fame, if the nominating committee still needs them. But on the scale of band members’ feelings about it, Carlisle is really not into being solicitous of the honor.
“I mean, the band was innovative and groundbreaking and the first of its kind in so many different ways,” says the singer. “So it doesn’t really make any sense, but I’m honestly way beyond caring about it. It would be nice. But I don’t give a f—.”
Once a punk-rock attitude, always a punk-rock attitude?
Presale tickets for all of the group’s summer concert dates go on sale today, except for Los Angeles. Details here:
June 25: San Diego
June 27: Las Vegas
June 28: Temecula, Calif.
June 30-July 1: Los Angeles
July 5: Asbury Park, NJ
July 7: Westbury, NY
July 9: Bensalem, Penn.
July 10: Mashantucket, Conn.
July 12: San Francisco
July 13: Costa Mesa, Calif.