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A movie that Go-Go’s there: Documentary digs deep into band’s history

Comprehensive Showtime film details how the punk-turned-pop stars wrote their hits and blazed a trail for women rockers.

Kathy Valentine (from left), Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Charlotte Caffey and Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s hangout backstage at a 1981 show in Rockford.
Showtime

In many ways the Go-Go’s story told in the new Showtime documentary of the same name is a classic tale of a seminal rock ’n’ roll band, from the humble beginnings to the early personnel changes to the rise to international stardom to the exhilaration of topping the charts to the dumping of the loyal first manager to the overindulgence of certain substances to the squabbles over royalty payments to the bitter breakup and ultimately a reconciliation. Whew! We’ve seen this movie, many times.

But as Alison Ellwood’s comprehensive and expertly rendered documentary illustrates, what’s unique about the Go-Go’s is their pioneering, glass ceiling-shattering, stereotype-smashing status as the first all-female band to write their own songs, play their own instruments and hit No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. When we talk about musical acts that deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but are perennially overlooked, the Go-Go’s should be atop THAT chart as well. (Maybe the snub has something to do with Hall co-founder Jann Wenner, whose Rolling Stone covers of the band included such headlines as “Go-Go’s Put Out” and “Go-Go’s: Women on Top.” Enlightened.)

To casual fans who remember the Go-Go’s for such infectious pop classics as “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Vacation,” it might come as a surprise to learn the group started as a loud, raucous, wild and not particularly tuneful punk band. (There’s a treasure trove of footage of the teenage band members having the time of their lives onstage, even though most of them were just learning to play their respective instruments.) Unlike previous all-girl bands, the Go-Go’s were not a packaged band overseen by male Svengalis; they found each other on their own and carved out their own identity, gradually making the segue to pop music after Charlotte Caffey joined the band and wrote “We Got the Beat.” (Director Ellwood makes spare but great use of visual touches, in this case some animation to augment Caffey’s story of how she was inspired to write the intro to “We Got the Beat” after hearing the famous “Twilight Zone” theme on TV. Play the tunes together in your head; it makes sense!)

There’s also a nifty sequence in which Jane Wiedlin explains how she came to write “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and some terrific behind-the-scenes stories, e.g., the Go-Go’s touring as an opening act for the Police, who celebrated with them when their album actually leapfrogged the headline act, and the making of videos for such hits as “Vacation.” (Spoiler alert: They weren’t actually water-skiing in “Vacation,” LOL.)

Wiedlin, Caffey, Kathy Valentine, Gina Schock and lead singer Belinda Carlisle all contribute candid interviews, as does former manager Ginger Canzoneri, who gave her heart and soul (and money) to the group in the early going but was tossed aside when the Go-Go’s exploded and decided they needed big-name management to handle their brand. After the acrimonious breakup and years spent apart, we see the Go-Go’s reunited and rehearsing, looking as happy as they did decades earlier.

They still Got the Beat.