The Go-Go’s also happened to be the first all-female band to write their own songs, play their own instruments and see their debut, 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, go to No. 1. (This was also the first album I bought with my own money, having walked down to the Wherehouse Music store on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley with my childhood friend, Jenny, and her older sister when I was nine years old. I felt very grown up cradling that album in my arms, with its slightly naughty, pink-and-blue cover depicting the five women wearing nothing but fluffy bath towels and creamy facial masks.)
But as we learn from director Alison Ellwood’s entertaining and richly sourced documentary, they did care what people thought. They had no choice—they were women in the music business. And while Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Kathy Valentine tried to remain true to themselves and each other as long as they could, archival footage and new interviews reveal that even being groundbreaking bad-asses didn’t insulate them from the tried-and-true highs and lows of rock superstardom.
Ellwood’s film does follow a familiar trajectory: the meteoric rise, the drugs and booze, the egos and pressures and, finally, the fight over money and credit that tore them apart in 1985 after just three albums. But what makes this documentary feel specific and alive is the way she vividly takes us back to the early days, letting The Go-Go’s reminisce about their beginnings and tell their own stories: who met who at which punk show, who brought actual musicianship and who was learning on the job. Wiedlin, the saucer-eyed, baby-voiced singer/songwriter and guitarist, speaks candidly about her lifelong battle with depression, her suicide attempt at 15, and how playing music saved her life. Carlisle, the kittenish lead singer who went on to the biggest solo career, recalls growing up poor as the eldest of seven kids, and how her perky, cheerleader exterior disguised her inner punk-rock rage. Guitarist and keyboardist Caffey, who also wrote many of their hits, talks frankly about the raging heroin habit she successfully hid for years.