It’s the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and The Go-Go’s are watching their documentary with an audience for the first time. The band had already seen a rough cut of the film prior to the fest, but there was something about seeing their story flash on the big screen that made everything hit them, and a process of healing began.
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“At the end of it, it was like something happened to all of us,” says Go-Go’s guitarist and songwriter Charlotte Caffey. “It was like I wasn’t even involved in the band, like I was watching it like an outsider. When we watched it on the big screen for the first time, we all felt the exact same thing, like ‘oh my God, I love these women, and who cares about all the ridiculous stuff that happened.’ It really was like a washing over and healing.”
The Go-Go’s, premiering on Showtime, moves through the band’s early days embedded in Los Angeles’ punk scene, hitting the London scene with Stiff Records, life after their 1981 debut Beauty and the Beat, and becoming the most successful female rock band of all time.
After seeing Alison Ellwood’s The History of the Eagles and American Jihad, the band tapped the Laurel Canyon director to tell their story. “I think the film has helped them heal a lot of the old wounds,” says Ellwood. “After that screening, they sort of were talking amongst themselves and were like, ‘did I really say that to you?’ And then there were apologies. It was very emotional.”
Always a fan of The Go-Go’s, Ellwood was never a punk. “I was definitely not a punk person, but I loved their music from the ’80s and late ’70s, and I always loved their lyrics,” says Ellwood. “They’re known for the three big songs, but there’s so many other songs that they did that are so good.”
The story of The Go-Go’s begins in 1978 when singer Belinda Carlisle, guitarist Jane Wiedlin and original bassist Margo Olavvarria met at local punk shows, and moves through their first show at LA’s now-defunct The Masque, and the band’s regular gigs at Whisky a Go Go. For Ellwood, making the film was a lesson in punk history, specifically the Los Angeles scene of the late 1970s, which spawned bands like X, the Germs, and The Dickies. Adding more narrative to the film, The Go-Go’s features stories from artists including Kathleen Hanna, Lee Thompson (The Madness), and The Specials’ Lynval Golding, the latter two bands who played with the Go-Go’s during their brief stint in the UK.
“It was fun for me, discovering all the punk history, which I didn’t know that much about,” says Ellwood. “I knew they had come from that world, but I didn’t know how deeply invested in it they were, how they sounded early on, or understand where they came from.”
In pulling together the film, the band didn’t want The Go-Go’s to turn into another VH1 Behind the Music filled with salacious stories. They had been there and done that already. “We were all fighting, but who gives a shit,” says Caffey. “No one cares about that. If you’re in a marriage for 40 years, you’re going to fight. It’s just the way it goes.”
Leading up to the band’s eventual breakup in 1985, everything wasn’t all doom and gloom around the Go-Go’s, which is something Ellwood wanted to capture. Forced to cut some pieces for the sake of editing, including touching on the band’s 2001 release God Bless the Go-Go’s, it was important to reveal their true bond, and humor.
“There are so many fun moments, and they’re really smart and funny women,” says Ellwood. “They are really fun to hang out with, and there are so many shenanigans. At one point, the film was just too funny, but I think that the essence of who they are and their music still comes through, so I don’t feel it was a huge loss.”
The Go-Go’s moves through the band’s ups and downs from the early shifts in lineup with the replacements original drummer Elissa Bello and bassist Margot Olavvaria, ongoing addictions, and the difficult separation from their first manager Ginger Canzoneri.
“We never wanted her to leave,” says Caffey, who says Canzoneri was basically pushed out once the band entered the big leagues of a very male-dominated and sexist industry. “She was our den mother, and she did an amazing job. I’m so grateful that she was in our bit in our documentary and told all, all her feelings and how it, her story.
A turning point for the band, says Caffey, was when bassist Kathy Valentine, who replaced Olavvaria, joined the band and in and admitted four-day coke binge learned how to play every Go-Go’s song for a New Year’s Eve gig. “That was like this piece of the puzzle,” says Caffey. “The chemistry between the five of us was undeniable.”
Then, there was Beauty and the Beat. Miles Copeland of I.R.S. Records “took a chance” on the all-girl band, and the debut projected the punk rockers into MTV pop land—and to the top of the charts for six consecutive weeks, bumping Copeland’s brother’s band The Police (Stewart Copeland) from the No. 1 slot. Under producer Richard Gottehrer, the band slowed down their single “We Got the Beat,” originally recorded as a hard and fast punk track under Stiff, resulting in their first No. 1 single.
“It’s bizarre, but I’m proud of it for sure,” says Caffey of the album, which is coming up on its 40th anniversary. “We had such incredible tenacity from the very beginning.”
Eventually, addiction and lack of communication were the breaking point for the band, including continued animosity toward Wiedlin and Caffey, who were the main writers and ultimately getting a bigger paycheck. “When it was positive, it was the greatest thing in the world,” says Caffey. “When it went negative, it was the scariest thing in the world.”
After Wiedlin left, Caffey, who had a severe heroin addiction (and is now 35 years sober) followed, a decision she made for her own health and sobriety. “We never really resolved things that had happened, but now we have, and it’s just really nice to be in that group of women that I’ve known for so long and not be burdened by all of that anymore,” says Caffey. “It took us a long time to figure that part of it out and just take that risk of saying, ‘hey, do you want to have this honest conversation. Let’s do this and put this crap behind us.’”
Ellwood says if there’s a message behind The Go-Go’s, it’s that they were truly pioneers in the short amount of time they were initially together. “To this day, they’re still the only all female band to have an album on the charts for that long,” says Ellwood. “No one’s done that since then, which is pretty crazy. I just hope that people can really appreciate their roots.”
Now back home in LA, Caffey is embracing the time off. “I’ve written so fucking much in the last 40 years, I’m taking a goddamn vacation,” Caffey says of the shutdown around the pandemic. “I’m 66 years old, and I’ve been through a lot of shit in my life but this one is really challenging, but we’re going to do it, and we’re going to be better on the other side.”
With everyone scattered—Carlisle lives in Thailand, Wiedlin resides in Mexico, Valentine is in Austin, and drummer Gina Schock is in San Francisco—The Go-Go’s are separated but forever together, still a band to this day.
The Go-Go’s closes where it all started for the band more than 40 years earlier, on stage at the Whisky a Go Go, working on their new single “Club Zero.” Written prior to the film by Caffey and Wiedlin, the band worked on the song by email, rewriting the lyrics several times before landing on the final piece.
“You see us working on it in the documentary, which is exactly what happened,” says Caffey. “That was not staged. It’s just really cool and organic, and that’s the only way that it ever works for us.”
Caffey hopes people get the message of perseverance from the film. “Hopefully, it makes people feel good because everyone needs that right now,” says Caffey. “It was all magical. And even with all my struggles, I had so much fun. There was never a day that I didn’t look forward to, because we were such pranksters—we still are. We’ve never changed.”