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The Go-Go’s Deserve Your Respect — A New Documentary Explains Why

Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin and filmmaker Alison Ellwood break down how a new Showtime portrait recounts the band’s story in their own words

The Go-Go's Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin discuss filmmaker Alison Ellwood's new Showtime documentary about them.

Vicki Berndt

Do not ask the Go-Go’s what they thought of their infamous 1997 episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. They did not like it.

“We really were unhappy,” frontwoman Belinda Carlisle says. “It dwelled more on the darker moments and all the negative stuff. We were kind of embarrassed and very, very disappointed.”

“We felt like that representation of us was really salacious,” guitarist and singer Jane Wiedlin says. “But it’s not like VH1 treated us any different than anyone else. I’m 100 percent convinced they had a template: the rise, the drugs, the fights, the falls, and then showing them today happier than ever, [whispers] even if they’re not happier than ever.” She erupts in laughter.

Even though the episode was an oft-rerun hit for the network and their record label capitalized on it three years later with a greatest-hits comp dubbed VH1 Behind the Music: Go-Go’s Collection, they have long sought to distance themselves from the debacle. It wasn’t until Carlisle saw the comprehensive 2013 History of the Eagles doc and took note of the director, Alison Ellwood, that she started to feel differently about wanting to participate in another Go-Go’s doc. “I thought [The Eagles] was a perfect rock documentary,” she says. So she urged the band’s manager and her bandmates to watch it, and they spent the next year and a half deciding whether or not to pursue it. Now, with the Ellwood-directed doc The Go-Go’s airing on Showtime on July 31st, they’re glad they decided to go for it.

The picture covers all the same tales of drugs, fights, and falls as Behind the Music but, at twice the running time, it humanizes them in ways the VH1 show never attempted. It dedicates time to each of the five women’s childhoods, their punk-rock roots, their love lives (though only when relevant to the music), their do-it-yourself handiness, and their family-like bond before showing them as superstars riding around in convertibles singing “Our Lips Are Sealed.” It’s not a perfect portrait — the film skips over two decades of reunion years — but it succeeds in showing the group’s importance. Just before the credits, Ellwood smacks you with this staggering fact: The Go-Go’s were “the first all-female band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to reach Number One in the Billboard chart. No other band has matched that achievement.”

When Carlisle and Wiedlin saw the film, they finally felt understood. Never before had they seen their early history — slugging it out in dingy L.A. clubs, pretending they could play their instruments until they really could, wearing trash bags as fashion — framed so eloquently. The band members, which also include guitarist Charlotte Caffey, bassist Kathy Valentine, and drummer Gina Schock, had found each other by themselves in the late Seventies, rather than through some Svengali-like figure. And they forged their future together, not at the insistence of anyone else who might have had other motivations.“If you look at a band like the Runaways, they’re all talented people, especially Joan [Jett], whom I consider a genius,” Wiedlin says. “And yet they were basically created by a really creepy man [Kim Fowley] who forced them into their image, who wrote their songs for them. I feel like those girls were really degraded. And so I guess I just feel lucky that we came about organically and kind of kept our own power.”In the process of telling the Go-Go’s story, Ellwood dug up a few stories that surprised the band members themselves. In the group’s infancy, Wiedlin, who has identified as bisexual since her teens, briefly dated Schock, but she was surprised to hear the drummer mention it. “She always was like, ‘My private life is my private life,’ so I didn’t expect that,” Wiedlin says. “I was really proud of her when I saw that; I was frankly shocked and really pleased because I don’t see how any of that is anything to be ashamed of.” The film also went deeper into the ways that Caffey’s heroin addiction affected the band than Behind the Music, making her decades of sobriety something they’re even more proud of.One funny scene shows them roasting Rolling Stone (and rightly so) for pairing a whimsical photo of the women in boyish underwear for a 1982 cover story with a sexist headline. When they complained to the magazine at the time, they were told they ought to be grateful.

“I was OK with it when [photographer Annie Liebovitz] suggested it, because it was men’s underwear,” Wiedlin says. “Most of it was Hanes, and it wasn’t particularly sexy. I thought it was more lighthearted and fun. it was a striking image. But the magazine did choose the cover title, ‘Go-Go’s Put Out,’ which was unfortunate.”

“In retrospect, it was a great visual,” Carlisle says, “but we were all kind of disappointed, because we’re not those people at all. So for us, it was disappointing, but we still got the cover of Rolling Stone. It was a different time, and people thought differently back then.” (When I apologize on behalf of the magazine, both women laugh. “That’s sweet,” Carlisle says. “Thank you so much.”)

The singer jokes in the film that by complaining about the cover, it’s barred them from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Both she and Wiedlin feel that there has been someone on the nominating committee who has kept them off ballots, but they’re hoping that changes. “I thought the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was about innovators, no matter if you like their music or not,” Carlisle says. “You would think the first or only one of their kind would be recognized by an entity like that. But at the end of the day, I really could give a flying fuck.” She laughs and adds, “I get sent the ballot to vote and every single time, I just write the Go-Go’s down and I check it off, in and out.”

“Whether you like it or not, you can’t take away our accomplishments,” Wiedlin says. “So it’s a little weird. But I’ve never lost sleep over it.”

“I think in some ways, the Rock Hall has discredited themselves … just with the lack of women,” Carlisle says. “Without going into too much detail, I think the fact that Suzi Quatro’s not in there is a disgrace. There are a lot of people who are innovators that aren’t in there, like the B-52’s, Cher, it goes on and on. It’s just, who are they anyway? At the end of the day, they’re a bunch of guys and women in a room making decisions on who’ll bring in revenue on T-shirts and beer koozies. So I don’t really care.”

In addition to showing the group’s successes, the film also explains why the group fell apart with more detail. Around the making of their Talk Show LP, Schock saw how much the band members who wrote the songs made compared to her and tried to get Carlisle, who also didn’t write songs, to join her in confronting them about what she saw as an inequity. “I felt like I had no right to say anything because I was such a fuck-up,” Carlisle says in the film.

“I was on drugs for part of it and I wasn’t all there,” the singer explains now. “I was more interested in having a good time and reaping the rewards of the Go-Go’s but not wanting to put in the work. If I had behaved differently and had more input, I probably would have went right along with Gina. … In retrospect, I think I did the right thing [staying out of it] because I wasn’t contributing. I thought then that I really didn’t deserve it, and I still don’t think I deserve it.”

This standoff led to management requesting the band share songwriting credits evenly, prompting Wiedlin to quit. But more than that, it was an easy decision for her since she felt let down by the band during the making of Talk Show when none of the women would support her desire to sing a personal song she’d written, “Forget That Day.” “One of them said, ‘What makes you think you’re good enough to sing a song?’ which is something I’ll never forget hearing,” Wiedlin says, eyes wide, in the film.

When her bandmates saw that scene at Sundance, their jaws hit the floor. “Everybody was horrified, as to, ‘Did I say that?’ ‘Did I say that?’” Carlisle says now. “It was addressed finally.”

“After they approached me, we talked about it, and it was a very emotional conversation,” Wiedlin says. “I’m not gonna say who said it, because that would be just mean. Who cares? It’s super water under the bridge.”

“I think there’s been some healing that has happened as a result of the film,” Ellwood says. “When we were at Sundance, it was the first time they saw it with an audience. When the audience responded so positively, I think there’s some healing that’s happening.”

Ellwood says she struggled a little with how she wanted to tell the story. Asked to compare the Go-Go’s story with her other subject, the Eagles, she says, “The Eagles was about male anger, and The Go-Go’s is about female pain, stemming from the same place: Creativity is a very volatile thing and when you combine five people, it becomes even more volatile.” Ultimately, she decided the best way to frame it was to end it around the group’s Eighties breakup. The only thing the women didn’t want her to use was a sex tape from a night on the road that Behind the Music had used, and she was OK with that since she already had so much great material that it was difficult to cut.

One of the toughest scenes to say goodbye to was the full clip of the group performing at an Elk’s Lodge during their punk era also captured how the gig turned into a riot and the police had to come break it up. “The footage from that was unbelievable,” the director says. “But it was so early in the film, it was like, ‘Whoa, where are we going with this?’ The Go-Go’s all got out OK. I think someone’s trying to make a film about that night, too.” She also had to cut a scene where Carlisle and author Pleasant Gehman were using a Ouija board in the flophouse the Go-Go’s called home, and it spelled out, “This house is a mess.” She decided to skip over the Nineties reunions and the years after, when the group recorded a reunion album, toured, and still faced inter-band turmoil, even ejecting Valentine at one point until they welcomed her back for their recent Broadway shows. “It feels like another chapter to the story,” Ellwood says.

“Our relationship with each other is familial,” Carlisle says. “Family members don’t always get along, and I think that that’s how we operate. If there’s something bugging us now, we just address it honestly. We said that 20 years ago, but I don’t think we really did that then. I think just now, because it’s later years and we are winding down, it’s important to be honest with each other.”

Despite the bad blood in the past, the director says that when the five women got together to record a new song, “Club Zero,” for the final scene of the film, their chemistry was amazing. “They just fall back into their old routine,” she says. “They are five of the funniest, smartest women I’ve ever met, and they are just hysterical together.”

The track is a driving, punkish pop song with a typically big chorus: “Gonna make the world shake, ready or not, here we are, better get out of our way,” they all sing together, “Looking for heroes, we are Club Zero.”

“I was reading about the Zero Zero Club, which was an underground, after-hours club in Hollywood in the Eighties,” Wiedlin says. “I thought about how cool that title. I just felt that the point of that song was the perfect thing for the Go-Go’s to say in 2020. We’re not putting up with this whole boys’ club anymore. It’s fucking bullshit. And that’s what Club Zero is: ‘Zero fucks given.’ It felt like what people needed to hear right now.”

Ellwood likes the song because she thinks it sums up their legacy. “As they say in ‘Club Zero,’ they’re ‘the new MVPs of the 21st century,’” she says, laughing. “They’ve gone through an awful lot in life and have a lot to share. They have the tone and attitude that we need right now. They’re all very political and engaged and care a lot about what’s happening. And I think that even though everyone still calls them ‘the girls,’ they are in fact women with a lot of heart and soul.”

And in depicting that onscreen, Ellwood hopes the doc assists the group in achieving another victory. “I do hope that the film helps get them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” she says. “There are four moments in the film where it’s mentioned, and I was fully prepared to pull those scenes last year because I was so sure they were going to be inducted in 2020 that we’d have to remove them. But when they weren’t, oh, my God. That’s just insane. They all say it doesn’t matter to them, but at the same time, it must. They’re the only all-female band to do that in 42 years. That’s a long time to hold that place in history and not be recognized for that.”

From Rolling Stone US