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January 15, 2021

The Go-Go’s Documentary; Interview with Director Alison Ellwood

The Go-Go's (L–R): Charlotte Caffey, Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlen, Gina Schock and Belinda Carlisle.

By Harvey Kubernik 

Multi-platinum Los Angeles rock band the Go-Go’s, featuring Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin, will see the release of the Alison Ellwood-directed THE GO-GO’S on DVD and Blu-ray formats (Polygram/UMe) and through digital download & rental services (Eagle Rock Entertainment) on February 5, 2021. 

The documentary debuted in the summer of 2020 on Showtime cable television. The film was done in association with Showtime, Polygram Entertainment, Universal Music Publishing Group and Interscope Films a Fine Point Films and Fadoo Production. 

Ellwood’s THE GO-GO’S documentary, which first premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival won a 2020 Critics Choice Award for “Best Music Documentary” in addition to receiving the honor of “Most Compelling Living Subjects in a Documentary.” 

The candid and archive-rich documentary assesses the group’s place in music history and offers full access to the Go-Go’s. With their roots in the LA punk scene, this film is a serious appraisal of their story and sets the record straight about their historical ascent to global stardom. 

The Go-Go’s will be honored at the Women’s International Music Network January 22, 2021 She Rocks Awards, which pays tribute to women in the industry. In June, the Go-Go’s will perform a series of summer 2021 North American tour dates. 

Greg Franco, Bandleader of Rough Church and Man’s Body: “Critics diminish the Go-Go’s contribution to rock and roll as a 2-hit wonder LA bubblegum band. 

“However, I saw them not only as the coolest chicks ever, but worthy of rock and roll respect. These women were no wallflowers. They inspired me; I wanted to get up on stage, sing and sweat, and perfect the band sound too.

“Rodney Bingenheimer and his Rodney On The ROQ weekly radio show in Pasadena California first introduced me and the world to the Go-Go’s. 

“The Go-Go’s invaded a smelly frat house; in 1976 Rodney showed up on Saturday nights with hot chicks and badass records and demos. It was only then that the music on the air became as young and vibrant as its audience. Later Rick Carroll, as program director, made this music a successful programming template. 

“In 1980-81 KROQ-FM was a great station to listen to. Rodney broke the Go-Go’s, playing their demo cover of the Shangri- La’s song ‘Walking in the Sand.’ He also played Blondie and the Ramones for the first time in LA. The station went from being a barely heard squeak in the FM radio universe to being a hot to tune in station. It was working, and KROQ was becoming a legitimate cultural weapon of its time. The Go-Go’s were the soundtrack to a generation of kids. They were surfing punk and new wave along with the Specials, X, and the Cramps.

“After hearing the Go-Go’s on KROQ and LOVING the first single, I went to Pooh- Bah Records in Pasadena to grab their Stiff Records release ‘We Got The Beat/How Much More.’ Chicks and dudes alike, we dug it. It was our music. 

“Soon would come the MTV era, which changed the entire game in a way that helped kill the party. In retrospect, I can see more clearly the cultural impact the Go-Go’s had on my Burbank High Schools days. We watched locals conquer the world for a moment. Knowing that they were LA gals who were like us, the record collectors, the thrift store clothes buyers; these newly minted musicians were also dodging the slings and arrows of the music biz, and that also inspired us. 

“I see the Go-Go’s in the realm of some of the great groups. They were very influential at a time when the vintage was sweet, the grapes just perfect. Were you in LA in 1976-81? It’s not at all a bad era for music. The Go-Go’s reside in that equation.” 

Gary Pig Gold, Writer and Musician: “Perhaps always just as much, if not more, Fanny or even Ace of Cups than Runaways, the Go-Go’s brought a much-needed sense of Bye Bye Birdie as opposed to Apocalypse Now to the fledgling Hollywood p-rock scene,” schemes Guy of 100 Lists Gary Pig Gold. 

“Realizing right away to associate and/or surround themselves with only the coolest of past masters — various Sparks, Specials, Police, Ventures, and most crucially sixth Go-Go Richard Gottehrer — this was one band who housed musical chops (Caffey), song-writing smarts (Wiedlin), a superb rhythmic section (Valentine and Schock) with an All-American baseball-datin’ new age Ann-Margret to front it all. 

“While their extra-circular activities could easily rival even those of similarly supposedly clean-cut SoCal Beach Boys, the Go-Go’s in fact took their fun seriously enough to rack up platinum long-players, earn their Hall plus Walk of Fame stars, and even inspire a Broadway play alongside a couple’a tell-almost-all tomes. The Stones to the Bangles’ Beatles? No… let’s just say these were indeed some girls who beat multiple music biz odds with beauty and, yes, brains. God Bless the Go-Go’s.”

Dr. James Cushing, Writer and Poet: “The Go-Go’s! I can’t remember how many times I heard the Go-Go’s between 1977 and 1983, but it was at least 25, because they were the inevitable opening act for any punk bands at any of the venues across the city — the Hong Kong Cafe, Club 88, the Starwood, Baces Hall, no matter where, the Go-Go’s would be the opening act, cheerfully mugging through ‘We Got the Beat’ and ‘Skidmarks on My Heart’ and the others. They were consistently strong performers who had real songwriting ability, and women told me they felt safe and welcome at Go-Go’s shows, in contrast to the more fisticuff-heavy Black Flag / Circle Jerks sort of action. They persisted and they triumphed. 

“What do I mean by ‘triumph’? My first Go-Go’s show was at the Masque in (I think) September 1977; they got through two songs in that legendarily crappy basement before the toilet flooded and we all had to split because there was smelly water everywhere. The last time I saw the Go-Go’s was September 1983 — at the Anaheim Stadium, opening for Bowie. They got through the whole set.” 

Daniel Weizmann, Writer: “The Go-Go’s presented themselves as byproducts of day glo pop art and mod/surf culture, but under the surface I see them as direct descendants of the pre-code Warner Brothers ‘backstager’ musicals — the flicks choreographed by Busby Berkeley and starring Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, Una Merkel and all those other tap-dancing babes in satin hot pants. 

“I’m not just talking about a cosmetic connection. The Go-Go’s came off with the wise-cracking spirit of a new kind of 20th century female. Their lyrics, their energy, their attitude is street smart, reckless, and footloose. They aren’t just glamorous–they’re about the dream of glamour. 

“In fact, they describe themselves as dreamers and whores without irony, they openly lament falling in love, they exchange secrets like those 42nd Street chorus girls who know they’re the only ones who can save the show.” 

Heather Harris, Photographer: They used to be invisible, like pretty Ida Lupino known for her acting but not her directing career. Nowadays not only is there a deserved bevy of film directors of the XX chromosome persuasion, but we also know their names as rightful branding connected to projects: Patty Jenkins, Kathryn Bigelow, Penelope Spheeris, Greta Gerwig, Amy Heckerling, Sofia Coppola et al. (Students of Cinema must add Dorothy Arzner, Agnes Varda, Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion and [please swallow your cardiac meds before reading the following, but the evil one was probably the greatest of them all, pure cinema-wise, really, then or now,] Leni Reifenstahl.)

“Now the following name will be added without pause to the preceding, documentary director Alison Ellwood. She knows how to navigate overcrowded fields deftly and just cherry pick the best images and factoids to insure her work as the one you remember. Witness her Laurel Canyon, A Place in Time, best of the three documentaries on the lost musical world of Laurel Canyon habitues that were all released more or less at the same time. Ellwood’s is the go to one for the most complete history.

“Ellwood’s only persistent invisibility is her deft touch. Her newest THE GO-GO’S tackles a topic that some dismissed as frothy angel food cake, and made a treatise on the undercurrent philosophies of Julia Child’s The French Chef out of it. 

“After all, this was a band of very, very young women who made their own breakthroughs in a competitive field that’s tough sledding for everyone, male, female, whatever your diversity. And they succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams including their own. 

“Her starting base was women who went from loving to hating one another, despite the soothing unguents of newly created wealth. There was also those pesky bootleg private videos of X rated pastimes fueled with once fun drugs that accompanied their time on the charts, about which everybody in the industry knew. (Less successful sister act the Pandoras also had them. Investigate this amazing band with ten times the drama of the Go-Go’s, those who would follow in Ellwood’s filmic steps.)

L–R: Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlen, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Belinda Carlisle. Photo by Vicki Berndt

L–R: Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlen, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Belinda Carlisle. Photo by Vicki Berndt

“Alison Ellwood’s cool doc THE GO-GO’s released in 2020 may end up the only good thing anyone remembers from this sordid, ailing, disenfranchised and enslaved year. All those projected 2021 tour dates of the reunited Go-Go’s are not going to happen. We are too far gone for the good things in life even in the near future…” 

Alison Ellwood’s feature film directing credits include American JihadHistory of the Eagles, Parts 1&2, Spring Broke and Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place. 

Her television directing credits list CNN’s Death Row StoriesLocked In for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, No Limits for ESPN’s Nine for IX series, The Human Behavior Experiments, the Emmy Award-winning series American HighThe Travelers and Sixteen. 

Ellwood has produced and edited several feature documentary films including Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Catching HellGonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. ThompsonMy Trip to Al Qaeda, and Casino Jack and the United States of Money. 

She was co-producer for the feature documentary Finding Fela and HBO’s Brett Killed Mom: A Sister’s Diary. Ellwood was consulting producer for the Sundance series Brick City and two feature films The September Issue and Food Chains. 

In 2013 Ellwood directed History of the Eagles, a TV 2 episode mini-series documentary. During 2020 her Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time debuted on the EPIX/MGM TV channel. 

Alison’s Women of Troy an HBO documentary in 2020 examining the transcendent career of basketball icon Cheryl Miller and her University of Southern California Trojans and their impact on women’s basketball and the first emergence of Title IX’s influence in women’s sports is one of the best films I’ve seen this century. 

Harvey Kubernik Interview with Alison Ellwood 

HK: How did this directorial job on the Go-Go’s happen? 

AE: I got a phone call from Eimhear O’Neill who was one of the producers on the project who I’d known for years. And then I got this very random phone call from the manager of the Go-Go’s about directing a film about them. “Are you interested?” And I said, “Great to hear from you. Yes!’ 

I was always a Go-Go’s fan, too. I just loved the music. And so I was very excited to hear they wanted to do it. I had several phone meetings with the band members. They wanted to make the film but were still a little bit gun-shy after their Behind the Music experience that they felt was very salacious. And they didn’t want a repeat of that. We met in person in New York and we went out and had dinner. We completely hit it off and bonded. And then I finally convinced them to go forward with it. 

HK: Talk to me about your pre-production process? 

AE: I get immersed in viewing archive, artifacts and listen to the music. Initially I do an immersive reading of everything I can find on them and listen to the music simultaneously. And then look at archives available, usually online, and then when the project is greenlit then I start getting archive that come in officially then finally you start. I find things never seen before or haven’t in a long time. And that kind of sparks Ideas. And then once I feel I’ve looked at enough material, read enough, then we set up doing the Interviews so that they can really be extensive and inclusive of lots of different things. 

HK: What is the key to getting a good interview? 

AE: I think everyone ap-
proaches these things differently but the most important thing that I feel that I’ve learned over the years is to have it be as conversational as possible. And jump around in time a lot. Especially with people that have been interviewed multiple times so they don’t feel they are treading over the same material. You just jump around a bit so questions come and they aren’t expecting them. They will say something that happened in 1981 and I’ll add “how does that relate to your childhood?” And they go back. And it keeps it more conversational. 

Obviously, trust is the first key thing. They have to trust you and I have to trust them. That’s what I said to all the girls in the band. I said “You have to trust me because I have to trust you, because I don’t want to make a commercial. I don’t want to do a fluff piece here. So it’s a mutual trust where we have to be honest with one another. And if you are honest with me we will make an honest film.” That’s what I try and do. 

HK: Is there another motive to bringing out history and facts that at times are reminders of a comical or dark past? 

AE: Again, it all comes down to trust. Sometimes you have to push them a little bit. I was pleasantly surprised how forthcoming they all were in their interviews. I was a little worried they may be a bit hesitant but they all just went there. 

“Charlotte has been very public about her drug addiction problems. She wanted to be public about it in order to help other people. They addressed some personal things in the band. I was surprised that Gina mentioned that she and Jane had a relationship. Because I knew that but wasn’t sure she was gonna go there. But she did, which is great. 

You know Jane surprised me when she said she was diagnosed as being bi-polar and only Charlotte in the band knew at that point and she didn’t want the others to even know. (laughs). Regarding interviews, keep them kind of off guard in the interviews so they don’t expect what is coming next. ‘Cause it keeps it like I said before more of a conversation and a dialogue and less of a rehash of stuff they’ve already talked about. 

GO-GOs_Doc_CoverArt-copy

HK: Are you influenced by presenting subjects in a chronological manner? 

AE: Well, chronology is always a good friend of the way to start something because at least it’s a way of clearly laying out something. But then I think at times it can get in the way. 

The first cut on the Go-Go’s was about three hours. And it didn’t make sense to break it up to two films. We wanted it to be a feature. That version was very much a chronological layout with all the funny and crazy stuff that happened to them along the way. Fun gem moments. But you have to realize “what story are we telling here.” We just don’t want to go from one anecdote to another. Because that’s not building a drama here so we then went back and said “what is each character’s arc? What are their story arcs?” And if things didn’t pertain necessary to that we would pull it out whatever scenes we were contemplating and does it work without it?

In a film like the Go-Go’s what was really fun was to hear how the songs developed. How “We Got the Beat” changed over times. When they first started to play it the song was much punkier sounding, and much faster and much rawer. And they refined it and it became more of the pop song that we all know today. And in that case it was fun to see the transformation of the song as they were growing and developing as artists and musicians. 

HK: Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time. Still photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde were at the epicenter of your terrific movie. So often the photographers are glimpsed in documentaries, their images and catalog licensed, but you showcased them as spirit guides. 

AE: Going into Laurel Canyon one thing that I was concerned about was that I did not want it to feel like an anthology where we are going from one band to another band and this happened and that happened. We really wanted to find organic connections. And I guess that is the one thing that hopefully translates to everything that I do. But you find ways from editing to narration writing that you are making connections that feel organic that don’t feel forced or just walking through chronology. 

From the start there was a decision to do audio-only. I made Henry and Nurit guides of the documentary and their interviews are on camera.

So finding those little magical things that you might not even think anything of at the time and yet they end up being an important part of the film. It is finding the moments that are interesting and feel organic and unexpected. I certainly have a role in the music that we choose to put into the cut at any given time. Whether we can clear it or not is another issue. (laughs). 

HK: What did you come away with after finishing Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time and THE GO-GO’s film? I know you love the music of Laurel Canyon and always a fan of the Doors. Jim Morrison’s American Prayer is one of your favorite albums. 

AE: I think the answer would be the same for both films and also be the answer for the Ken Kesey movie. In that we were able to capture a moment in time that could never be recreated that was formed like some sort of alchemy occurred. And that these people came together and bounced off of one another and created these scenes. 

The Go-Go’s with this punk scene in Los Angeles and Laurel Canyon and that whole scene there and how all those artists interacted with one another and influenced one another. And what they learned from one another and what they took from one another. And same with the Ken Kesey piece. That was just this moment in time you could never recreate. 

I mean, there is never gonna be another school bus painted with crazy colors with a bunch of acid tripping hippie freaks driving across the country. (laughs). It would never happen again. And to really have had the honor of bringing that moment to life in all three of those films it feels very special. 

HK: There has been a renaissance in music documentaries. I know there are more exhibition venues now for viewing, like Netflix, downloading platforms and other sites. Do you have any theory why music-driven documentaries are more popular now and acquiring wider distribution? 

AE: It’s definitely changed. I think a lot of it honestly has to do with the fact that some of these artists are getting older and they want to tell their own stories and they realize that they should do it while they are around to do it versus leaving it in the hands of others. So that is a big part of it. And it helps that the record labels are now more actively involved with producers. It’s still very difficult to sell and raise money for music documentaries. They are very expensive. 

The rates are much higher than they were even ten years ago, which is great because the artists need to get paid which means the budgets have to be higher which makes it harder to sell.

(During 2020 Harvey Kubernik served as a Consultant on the 2-part documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time directed by Alison Ellwood. Kubernik is currently working on a documentary about Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member singer/songwriter Del Shannon. 

During 2020 Harvey’s book, Docs That Rock, Music That Matters was published, featuring interviews with D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Albert Maysles, Murray Lerner, Morgan Neville, Dr. James Cushing, Curtis Hanson, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Andrew Loog Oldham, Dick Clark, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Travis Pike, Allan Arkush, and David Leaf, among others.

In November 2006, Harvey Kubernik was a featured speaker discussing audiotape preservation and archiving at special hearings called by The Library of Congress and held in Hollywood, California. 

Kubernik’s 1995 interview, Berry Gordy: A Conversation With Mr. Motown appears in The Pop, Rock & Soul Reader edited by David Brackett published in 2019 by Oxford University Press. 

 This century Kubernik wrote the liner note booklets to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special and The Ramones’ End of the Century).






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