Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Seen as part of MIFF 2020, via their online platform.
Bursting out of the vibrant LA punk scene of the early 80s: The Go Go’s: Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey and Gina Shock. Five charismatic young woman who played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, and bemused the male run music industry who knew one cardinal rule: GIRL BANDS DON’T SELL RECORDS. Proving them wrong, the Go Go’s would produce some of the best pop songs of the era, although success came at the expense of their personal relationships.
This entertaining band biopic doco is like The Go Go’s best music; fun, lively, infectious, with just enough wistful melancholy to give it some weight. The film sketches the famous LA punk scene (vividly recorded in ‘The Decline of Western Civilisation’), and shows why it was significant; this was a haven for misfits, a free and equal space where anything went. Dress as you want, act as you want, pick up an instrument if you want; it was all about no-judgement self expression. The future Go Go’s were drawn to this, and revelled in the creative freedom.
The band members speak directly to camera, and don’t shy away from some regrettable past behaviour. The most affecting parts of the movie come when they discuss line up changes; the band replaced both their original drummer and base player. While the replacements were more proficient musicians, the idea that this was important was anathema in the punk scene (which valued personality over technique), and you can tell the hurt still lingers. Variations on the term ‘sell out’ are used several times. The band also cut their long standing manager loose at the height of their fame, an incident which reduces her to tears as she recounts it, even decades later.
Most bands go through these convolutions on their road to the top. Music is like film, in that it is less of an individual artistic pursuit, and more of a collaboration. And when you get a group of creative types working together, there will inevitably be friction. But when this process works, the results are thrilling. Witness the great sequence showing the band coming up with ‘We Got the Beat’; different people talk about the writing of the lyrics, over rehearsal footage of the group working out the song’s hooks and rhythm. You can feel the propulsive energy building, and how excited they are as it comes together, leading to them rocking out, playing the song live.
The film is constructed simply. It is not especially innovative, and the second half concentrates more on the toxic nature of the music industry, which has been covered exhaustively. But it mostly focuses on these pioneering women, and let’s them tell their stories, which are compelling. The Go Go’s time at the top was short, but their legacy is important. And their music is timeless: a perfect upbeat tonic for this troubled era. I have listened to ‘Beauty and the Beat’ ten times since watching.