Director Alison Ellwood On Why She Wanted To Make A Go-Go’s Documentary

When you watch Alison Ellwood’s new documentary, The Go-Go’s (which premieres Friday on Showtime), it’s startling how, let’s say, fraught, at times, the relationship is between the five core members. Especially when The Go-Go’s are known for music that make a person just feel good. But as Ellwood’s documentary explores, The Go-Go’s were the first all-female band who wrote their own music and played their own instruments to have a number one album. But with that, like with any other band, came professional jealousy (in other words, who was making the most money, and that answer might surprise you) and came drug addiction that split the band up at the height of their fame.

Ahead, Ellwood explains why it was important to make a film about these five women – Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine – and why it’s a travesty they haven’t been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Why did you want to do a Go-Go’s movie? It is interesting this extremely successful band, all of a sudden, just went away.

Well, that’s the fascinating part of the story, right? That’s what it’s about. I mean artists are, by nature, very volatile, I think. But my relationship prior to that, I was a fan of the music, loved the music. But yeah, they kind of disappeared for a while. They actually approached me to make the film.

Oh really?

They had seen some of my work. And I was thrilled because I have always been a fan. When I started this before I started researching, I really didn’t know that they were so deeply rooted in the punk scene in LA. I just always assumed they were this very hip pop band from LA.

Were you surprised how, what’s a good word, fraught their relationship is on and off over the years?

I mean, they would describe their relationship as a marriage with five people. And it’s very hard to maintain a marriage with two people, much less five people. And they’re like sisters who squabble. They’re like a family, they really are. And I think there’s been some healing because of the film because they said some things that ended up in the film. And they’ve discussed it because they had a way of not confronting and dealing with stuff when it was happening, like a lot of people do. It’s not so unusual when people tend to avoid confrontation, but they really avoided it and avoided dealing with stuff as a result.

Did you know about the drug use? Or did that come as a shock to you?

I mean, I knew about it. I didn’t know the degree to which Charlotte was hiding such a serious addiction. That I learned in the process of researching. By the time I sat her down to interview her, I knew all about it, and she was very forthcoming about it. She has always been actually, because she really wants to share to let people know that there’s a way out, because it was really scary what she went through. But it was the ’80s. I knew everybody was doing drugs, so that part didn’t surprise me.

You interview Margot Olavarria, who left the band right before they got immensely popular. Was she hesitant to talk?

Yeah. She was very reticent to talk. And I went out and had dinner with her in New York, and we had a really nice long talk. And I think she was super nervous about it, but I said it’s important for her to tell her part of the story. And I think she comes off really well in the film. I love that scene where she runs into Charlotte in New York and knows what she’s up to because the others were sort of ignoring it. And she’s like, “I know what she’s doing.” It’s pretty intense.

Was there anything else that shocked you as much as that?

There’s a story that didn’t make it in the film about how they trashed their dressing room once. And they felt so badly that someone else was going to have to come in and clean it up that they cleaned it up themselves. And their road manager said, “You girls aren’t Motley Crue.” And that was a hard moment to cut out of the film because it was such a great story, but we had to get it to time. There were too many funny stories. But I think that moment and they have such heart, they genuinely do. They’re good people.

I’m assuming this is your point of view because the film brings it up a few times, that it’s a travesty they’re not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When I spoke to Kathy she was pretty diplomatic about it, but I’m guessing you don’t have to be diplomatic about it.

To be totally honest with you, in the film, I was completely prepared in October to cut those moments. There are four moments, one in the middle where Belinda makes a crack complaining about the Rolling Stone cover with why they didn’t get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And then the three comments at the end, in October, I was completely prepared to pull those because I was sure they’d be inducted this year. I was shocked when they weren’t. So we kept it in. I think people have just forgotten, to be honest. I think that they just haven’t been on the radar, and I hope this film helps put them back in the spotlight where they should be.

Why did you think this might have been the year?

I just think with the Me Too Movement, the awareness of women, I just thought maybe. And plus, I think it’s overdue. So I thought that that might’ve helped push it a little bit, but guess not. So hopefully, next year. And they try to downplay it, that it doesn’t matter to them, but I know it does. They should be there.

You said maybe people have forgotten, but I hear their songs all the time still just in daily life.

I know. I hear them all the time. But you know what I hope also happens? I hope that people discover some of the other songs that weren’t necessarily the biggest hits, but are such amazing songs. I mean, they have a lot of songs. In the three main albums that they did before they split up, those are really good songs. There’s beautiful music in there. And the lyrics, there’s less subterfuge in the lyrics because it all sounds very bubbly, but it’s subtext. There’s something boiling under there. And I hope people really come to appreciate all the other songs because you really hear the three main ones. You hear “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Vacation.” Those are the ones you hear in the grocery store. You don’t hear “This Town,” and that’s a great song.

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