The Go-Go’s have never received the critical plaudits they truly deserve.
Capturing the band’s meteoric rise to fame in the early ’80s, director Alison Ellwood’s (Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place) documentary The Go-Go’s is a gleeful walk down a neon-lit, coke and booze-fueled memory lane. All of which might come as something of a pleasant shock for folks more familiar with the wholesome pop career of frontwoman Belinda Carlisle.
It’s nice to remember that well before ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ there was The Go-Go’s pop-punk feminist anthem, ‘We Got the Beat’. As Bikini Kill and Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna reminds us, ‘We Got the Beat’ fueled the imagination of a generation of riot grrrls.
It’s only fitting then that the eponymously-titled doco returns The Go-Go’s to their rightful place in musical memory. Specifically, when The Go-Go’s debut album Beauty and the Beat hit number one on the Billboard chart in 1981 and stayed in pole position for six weeks, they made history. At the time, the concept of an all-female band who could write their own songs, play their own instruments and be that successful was revolutionary.
Undoubtedly, there’d been other killer all-girl groups in the past, such as The Runaways and The Shangri-Las, but The Go-Go’s didn’t have a Svengali pulling the strings. Up to and including their first album, they were dancing to the beat of their own drum. Moreover, that feat has yet to be topped, and still they’re not inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Revisiting The Go-Go’s now also makes sense while nostalgia for the ’80s runs high. Realistically, The Go-Go’s probably helped fuel it – their songs featured in recent homages to the decade after all, including American Horror Story’s slasher season and Stranger Things.
Right now, the glee of LA sun, big hair and lipgloss is a welcome distraction. Plus, the anecdotes are a hoot. Take the time they were supporting The Police on tour and Beauty and the Beat left the headliner’s in chart dust. It’s nice to know that Sting dealt with it graciously (he broke the news and brought champagne to their room).
Hearing about their history with Madness and The Specials is another highlight. More fool the skinheads who spat on them on their UK tour – they came out the other side a harder, faster machine ready to climb the charts. When they returned to the US, lines of punters curled around the block to see them. The Go-Go’s had a whale of a time on tour, but hardly regarded themselves as nailing it – they just didn’t need to let anyone know on home turf.
Their former manager, Ginger Canzoneri’s, tale of hocking everything from her jewellery to her car to fund the band’s 1980 tour with The Specials, was gold. Canzoneri was exceptionally devoted to her client but the band dropped her when famed called – a decision the band later regretted.
While the film’s not all sweetness and light (in particular, examining Charlotte Caffey’s heroin addiction and Jane Wiedlin’s experience of depression) it never gets too grim either. In short, it’s a heartening paean to women who rocked, and be damned if it hasn’t prompted hours of entertainment delving deep into their back catalogue.
MIFF 68½ runs from now until Sunday August 23. Head to the festival website for tickets and the full program.
Check out the other notable music flicks screening at MIFF here.
Never miss a story. Sign up to Beat’s newsletter and you’ll be served fresh music, arts, food and culture stories three times a week.