Friday 3 July 2020

DOC/FEST 2020 - THE GO-GO'S review

Part of the Rhyme and Rhythm strand from this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest and available to rent from the Doc/Fest Selects streaming platform the festival has launched to combat the lack of cinema screenings due to the Covi-19 crisis, The Go-Go's re-unites all of the key band members of the '80s all-female pop-punk group.

Be honest, unless you were around in the early to mid 1980s, The Go-Go's is a band name that you might be familiar with through cultural osmosis, but could you easily name one of their songs? You're more likely to recall the name of one of lead singer Belinda Carlisle's solo career ballads; or at least that's true for anyone whose mother had Heaven is a Place on Earth on tape and would play it on every car journey (like myself). I say this not to cast doubt on the need for a documentary about The Go-Go's, but to ask why such a pioneering all-female pop group, who played all of their own instruments and had a huge impact on their audience at the time, hasn't enjoyed the same level of cultural appreciation as, say for example, The Runaways?

Thankfully, Alison Ellwood's documentary is not just the Belinda Carlisle story, and sheds an impressive amount of light on the history of the band, right back to their early days in the L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s where rhythm guitarist and songwriter Jane Wiedlin and singer Belinda Carlisle decided to form a band, toured the U.K. with Madness and The Specials and then huge arenas around the world when they became one of the biggest success stories of the early MTV days with music videos played in heavy rotation. Ellwood gets full access to every member of the band (even those who either walked early on or were pushed out due to the change in their musical direction), all interviewed in their lovely looking houses and looking nothing like the rebellious, punky teens they started life in the band as.

Reminiscing on their touring days, each member comes across as likeable enough, but as the interviews reveal, they were a band clearly hungry for success and willing to step over people on the way. Hey, that's showbusiness. The film does reckon with the often cutthroat nature of the music biz, particularly the discrepancy in pay the non-songwriting band members were getting, including frontwoman Carlisle. It's clear that even with some mended bridges, there's still some bad memories and residual bitterness towards the chief songwriting members of the group, although conversely they had a heroin problem (when 1980s era Ozzy Osbourne asks you to leave his dressing room, it's time to get help), and a desire to sing at least one song in the album leading to a dramatic departure and the eventual dissolution of the group. As one member states, they were "like sisters. Sisters who stab each other in the back".

What's most enjoyable about this doc is that you don't need to have been a fan of the band beforehand to enjoy this in depth history of the group, delivering all of the ups and downs, in-fighting, power struggles and reconciliations you could hope for from a true rock and roll band's story. Perhaps the defining story of The Go-Go's is that no matter how hard they toured, due to their gender, they were never taken seriously as musicians. The archive concert footage shows that they were a legitimate punk group in their infancy, dealing with rowdy skinheads on their early UK tour telling them to "show (their) tits", and even when their sound evolved into something more poppy and radio friendly, magazines such as Rolling Stone sexualised them on the front cover in a reductive way.

To answer the question I posed at the start, it's frankly ridiculous that The Go-Go's aren't a more highly revered band. Sure, they certainly had an influence on the generation after them (including Bikini Kill and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna, who appears here to express her love for them), but with a selection of fantastically fun, pop classics (and don't even get me started on guitarist Jane Wiedlin's solo single Rush Hour, possibly the catchiest song ever recorded), they really should be getting reappraised by the 80s obsessed youth of today any time now. This film should go some way towards that, as The Go-Go's is a well orchestrated doc that will please long time fans and those just discovering them too.


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