© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Showtime's 'The Go-Go's' Documentary Breaks The Seal

(L-R): Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin perform in 1981.
Cassy Cohen
(L-R): Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Belinda Carlisle, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin perform in 1981.

It's called The Go-Go's.

That's it. Just The Go-Go's. The new Showtime documentary about the first all-woman group to write their own songs, play their own instruments and snag a #1 hit doesn't come with a subtitle. That's notable because subtitles, in documentaries, often serve as thesis statements, organizing principles, saying, here is the throughline, the thematic infrastructure, of this film.

The organizing principle, the thematic infrastructure, of director Allison Ellwood's film The Go-Go's is ... The Go-Go's. No colon. Period, full stop.

Fittingly so, as it's as straightforward a music documentary as you're likely to come across. What it offers is a strictly chronological charting of the group's rise, reign and breakup, stopping at every last one of the familiar stations of the Behind The Music cross along the way: formation, youthful ambition, the shedding of early members for new members, discovery, the not-always-entirely-benign influence of managers and record executives, meteoric rise, partying, drugs, rehab, squabbles over money, breakup, reunion(s).

What sets it apart is its surfeit of archival footage highlighting the group's roots in the L.A. punk scene — guitarist Jane Wiedlin addresses the camera, mentioning attending a punk show at the Hollywood club The Masque, for example, and boom, there her younger self is, in grainy black-and-white, leaning on the stage while a group of shirtless mohawked safety-pinned young men thrash and spit and sneer on the stage before her.

This happens again and again — a given group member mentions a specific show, or magazine photo shoot, or trip to Vegas, and immediately we get the highly specific receipts: blurry footage, foggy negatives, or a series of Polaroids showing the five women clowning around in a Vegas hotel room.

In a medium so given to staged reenactments and place-holders (a concert poster in lieu of concert footage, say), the film's determination to show its work is striking. (Which is not to say it completely avoids indulging in certain familiar devices of modern documentary filmmaking, as it does avail itself of brief animated sequences — though these possess a cheesiness that seems knowing and intentional.)

But the main reason The Go-Go's succeeds to the considerable extent it does would seem to have less to do with the narrative technique director Ellwood brings to bear, and more to do with her timing.

In her contemporary interviews with the band members, Ellwood has captured them all at a time of life when they are prepared to look back at their youthful selves with a mixture of generosity and clear-eyed candor. There's a wry and rueful quality to these interviews that has nothing to do with either self-pity or self-aggrandizement — no simmering resentments are aired, but neither is fulsome, disingenuous praise lavished.

Guitarist Charlotte Caffey is as bracingly honest about her love of songwriting as she is about her one-time love of heroin. Drummer Gina Schock is funny, pugnacious and unpretentious. Bass guitarist Kathy Valentine credits "pharmaceutical help" (read: cocaine) with helping her learn the instrument over a four-day jag. Lead singer Belinda Carlisle comes off the most guarded, as you might expect, while acknowledging her younger self's shortcomings. And Wiedlin is Wiedlin — warm, charismatic and deeply savvy.

The distance these women have achieved from the events they describe also means that the emotional pain they dealt each other back then can be expressed, and even freshly felt, while still being placed in context. Original manager Ginger Canzoneri chokes up at the memory of the band replacing her; Wiedlin's refusal to agree that all songwriting royalties should be equally divided still gets her riled up; and harsh words exchanged at the meeting in which the band broke up clearly sting to this day.

If The Go-Go's isn't as groundbreaking as The Go-Go's themselves were, it's a laudably forthright, well-researched and perceptive testament to the power of pop music — and to the passage of time.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.