The Go-Go’s


They got the beat.

(2020) Music Documentary (Eagle RockBelinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Margot Olaverra, Ginger Canzoneri, Elissa Bello, Pleasant Gehman, Miles Copeland, Kathleen Hanna, Sting, Terry Hall, Lee Thompson, Lynval Golding, Chris Connelly, Dave Robinson, Paula Jean Brown, Richard Gottehrer, Stuart Copeland, Jann Wenner, Martha Quinn. Directed by Alison Ellwood

 

What the hell is wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? More to the point, why aren’t the Go-Go’s in it?

This is a band that has never truly been taken seriously. Even at the height of their fame, they were written off by critics as a lightweight pop band, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were trailblazers. They didn’t have a Svengali behind them as the Runaways, who have received far more props from the critical community. They achieved their success on their own. Maybe it’s because they flamed out so quickly, but there are bands in the Hall that have had shorter careers than they.

The Go-Go’s emerged from the L.A. punk scene that gave us bands like X, Motels, The Germs, and the Minutemen, among others. Jane Wiedlin, the manic pixie dreamgirl guitarist for the band, talks candidly of her own depression which led to a suicide attempt at 15; she was rescued by a punk scene that empowered her and inspired her to join a band with vocalist Belinda Carlisle.

The nascent group were more enthusiastic than accomplished. Early footage of them shows a band that can barely play their instruments, but even though their music is very different than what it would eventually become, that pop sheen can still clearly be heard. They eventually added guitarist Charlotte Caffey who turned out to be a talented songwriter who gave them their first hit single, “We Got the Beat,” inspired by a viewing of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

They became better, growing a following. They added a new drummer, Gina Schock, who turned out to be a world-class skin-pounder. And then when original bassist Margot Olaverra, who resisted the band’s shift from pure punk to a more pop-oriented sound, became ill, they recruited former Textones guitarist Kathy Valentine to take her spot. Valentine, who had never played bass before at the time, recalls learning the entire set of her new band in a two-day cocaine-fueled binge.

An early milestone was an invitation to tour England as an opening act for the Specials and Madness, two ska revival bands who the Go-Go’s opened for in L.A. It turned out to be a difficult tour; the Go-Go’s didn’t play ska music and often got booed off the stage, or spat upon by white nationalists who were fans of the ska movement (which is kind of ironic, when you think of it; most of the ska bands at the time were integrated and the music itself was based on music from Jamaica). It did get them attention enough from Stiff Records, the influential English independent label which then released “We Got the Beat” as a single. During the tour, Wiedlin became romantically involved with Specials frontman Terry Hall and the two wrote another song that would become a signature of the band: “Our Lips are Sealed.”

Miles Copeland, manager of The Police, signed the band to his fledgling IRS Records label who released their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. Jet-propelled by the two singles, it rose to number one on the charts and established the group as a major hitmaker. From there, they got on the rock and roll treadmill of touring, making a new album, touring, rinse, repeat.

Like other bands in the industry, the group was beset by the usual problems; squabbles about royalty payments, drug use (Caffey hid a burgeoning heroin addiction from the band, even as she continued to write the majority of their hits), Even as the Go-Go’s were becoming one of the biggest acts in rock and roll, the seeds of their implosion were planted; they fired their longtime manager Ginger Canzoneri for a more corporate management team, and eventually Wiedlin left the band. They replaced her briefly with Paula Jean Brown, but the chemistry of the band had already been affected. Six months after Wiedlin left the band, the rest of the group called it a day.

Ellwood has assembled a pretty standard rockumentary with plenty of interviews. The band is remarkably candid about their own foibles with the exception of Carlisle who while forthcoming about her own drug habit in the past, doesn’t mention it here and only obliquely refers to the role her own ego played in the schisms that ultimately broke the band apart. Ellwood does a good job of capturing the bond that still exists between the band (as the documentary was being completed, the band recorded their first material together in nearly two decades). She’s less successful at offering context of how the band was affected by their era – and how they affected succeeding eras. Only Bikini Kill’s outspoken Kathleen Hanna really remarks on the influence the band had on female musicians that came afterwards.

It’s hard to understand why this band hasn’t gotten the credit that is due them. Their music was never outwardly political or topical and thus became timeless; they sang about love and lust and loneliness; the things we all relate to. They did it with a relentlessly cheerful beat and irresistible pop hooks. There is skill involved in all of that but the band ended up being marginalized by everyone except their fans.

Nobody really took them seriously back then, a head-scratching attitude that continues to this day. There is the fact that they are all very attractive women and there is a tendency to look at attractive women as incompetents who get by on their looks rather than talent. It could be the mere fact that they are women, but when I think back to the recent documentaries on Joan Jett and Hanna, women whose music was more aggressive than that of the Go-Go’s, and the critical reception to both of those who hailed the subjects of those films as innovators and trailblazers. Well, so were the Go-Go’s but even now I don’t see the same type of acclaim being accorded them. Perhaps a more strident documentary was needed to maybe force people to listen. This band deserves better. They always have.

REASONS TO SEE: Puts the spotlight on a group that never really got its due.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less a standard rock doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Go-Go’s were the first (and to date, only) all-female group to play their own instruments and write their own songs to have a number one album on the Billboard charts.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV,  Fubo, Google Play, Showtime, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Reputation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Little Fish

Bad Reputation (2018)


Joan Jett is a rock and roll icon.

(2018) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Iggy Pop, Billy Joe Armstrong, Michael J. Fox, Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Kathleen Hanna, Miley Cyrus, Ian MacKaye, Pete Townshend, Bill Curbishley, Mike Ness, Kristen Stewart, Dougie Needles, Alison Mosshart, Dana White, Sally Hershberger, Rodney Bingenheimer, Thommy Price, Carianne Brinkman, Cherie Currie. Directed by Kevin Kerslake

 

One of the problems we film critics have is that often with documentaries we have a tendency to review the subject as much as the film. I’m certainly guilty of that and the temptation to do that with an icon like Joan Jett is damn near irresistible.

You can’t help but admire Jett as a musician. In an age when most women were relegated to playing soft rock or folk music, Jett wanted to rock hard. She wanted to be like the boys onstage; like Pete Townshend, like Jimmy Page, like Clapton. People in the industry would look at her like she was from Mars. Girls don’t rock; they strum. They sing sweetly and they certainly don’t shriek

As a teen, Joan Larkin made her way from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to chase her rock and roll dreams. She hung out in the English Disco, an all-ages nightclub where glam rock was worshiped by men and women wearing way too much make-up. Joan stood out in that crowd and met Sandy West, a kindred spirit who wanted to be John Bonham. They added guitarist Lita Ford, singer Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox and were christened The Runaways. Joan took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name and under the aegis of promoter Kim Fowley (whom Iggy Pop described as “like Frankenstein’s monster, if Frankenstein’s monster was on Quaaludes”) they would go on to record four studio albums and one live album before breaking up acrimoniously.

The band was met by critical scorn and by outright hostility by male rockers who didn’t want to see their clubhouse invaded by girls yet performance footage (of which there is sadly far too little) show that the Runaways were as hard rocking as any male band of their time. When the band broke up, Jett was devastated. She self-medicated with booze and drugs, hanging out with people like Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungeon and Stiv Bators, most of whom as Jett puts it “are dead now.” She even thought of joining the military to get herself straightened out but it was rock and roll that saved her.

She was introduced to Kenny Laguna, a noted bubblegum pop producer who heard something in Jett. Putting together a backing band who became known as the Blackhearts, Laguna melded his pop sensibilities with Joan’s hard rock instincts to create a kind of hard pop. When no label would even consider them, Jett and Laguna founded heir own label, becoming a precursor to the DIY punk labels that started in the 80s. When pop mogul Neil Bogart heard their demo, he arranged to distribute their first album and it looked like a wise move when the first album did extremely well but Bogart died before they could follow up on that success and his label died with him. Undaunted, the band found another label to distribute their music and they hit the big time powered by constant airplay on MTV. While most of the band’s hits were covers (“I Love Rock and Roll,” “Crimson and Clover”) there were several that Jett and Laguna penned as well (“Bad Reputation”). Through the 80s, Jett became the Queen of Rock, a darker haired version of Ann and Nancy Wilson.

The rock business has always been notoriously cyclical and as label relationships soured, the Blackhearts were bounced from label to label but while Jett and her band would never recapture the popularity they had in the 80s they continued to have hits here and there through the 90s and into the 21st century.

Now so far I’ve reviewed the subject and certainly Jett is worthy of a documentary but the problem with this documentary is a lack of depth. It’s a bit more of a puff piece and Kerslake doesn’t seem inclined to examine some of the darker subjects, like the allegations  in Cherie Currie’s book that Fowley had sexually assaulted members of the Runaways – Jett is certainly aware of those allegations and you’d think in this MeToo era she would be at least wanting to comment on them, even if only to say “I wasn’t aware of that kind of thing going on so I can’t validate Cherie’s story.”

There is also astonishingly little detail in how the high school aged Joan got from Pennsylvania to the West Coast, whether she was able to reconnect with her former bandmates in the Runaways or even who her personal influences are as a musician. Watching this movie is very much like staring at a picture that has been put through a shredder and tossed in a trash can and then later reassembled at the city dump; there are lots of pieces missing and the ones that are there are incomplete.

Still, Jett is candid and engaging. She doesn’t address her sexuality – I don’t think she should have to – which has been a subject of gossip for decades. If anything, I think Jett is married to rock and roll and that’s the source of her sexuality and her creativity. It is her center and her savior, and often her curse. It is the greatest love in her life. And like all of our own relationships it has had its ups and downs but she is still loyal to it nevertheless. That’s pretty damn admirable if you ask me.

You likely won’t respect Jett as a musician any more after seeing this than you already do – or do not, if you are of that mindset. You may find yourself respecting her more as a person as I did. Overall I’d have to say that while Jett is indeed a rock icon who deserves every accolade she gets thrown her way, I might have wished for a better biography of her than this. She’s earned better.

REASONS TO GO: Jett is a marvelous subject; she’s candid and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit Music Documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief nudity, sexual references and gestures, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jett celebrated her 60th birthday just four days before the film was released.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk


The scene is a monster.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop (narrator), Jello Biafra, Laurence Livermore, Tim Armstrong, Kathleen Hanna, Brett Gurewitz, Ian Mackaye, East Bay Ray, Fat Mike, Ben Weasel, Kirk Hammett, Lars Fredricksen, Mike Dirnt, Sergei Loobkoff, Kevin Seconds, Penelope Houston, Tre Cool, Duff McKagan, Kamala Parks, Honey, Miranda July, Ginger Coyote. Directed by Corbett Redford

 

The nature of music is that every so often there comes a confluence, a mixture of talent, opportunity and inspiration that coalesces in a single location. The rise of Motown in the 60s, the British invasion, the Seattle grunge scene, the jangle pop scene in Athens, GA, the Madchester era and the Minneapolis of Prince, the Replacements and Soul Asylum are all examples of this.

There are other scenes that are evergreens; they are generally large cities that have a steady influx of talent. Los Angeles, New York City, London and San Francisco are all consistently churning out great artists and inventing (or reinventing) new sounds. Sometimes these large city scenes are like black holes, drawing in everything in a 50 mile or more radius.

The East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area has always existed on the edge of San Francisco’s orbit. While Oakland has always had a thriving rap scene, the suburbs of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties have largely been garage band territories that have from time to time produced some fine bands.

During the 80s as the punk phenomenon was in full swing in San Francisco with bands like the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys and Flipper making important music something happened; the scene began to fade as hardcore skinhead bands began to suffuse the scene in violence. The editor of seminal punk ‘zine Maximumrocknroll Tim Yohannon wanted a venue that punk rockers of all ages could watch their favorite bands in safety – but also gave the bands the freedom to be themselves. He found such a space in Berkeley in a converted warehouse at 924 Gilman Street.

The 924 Gilman scene became a thriving punk scene that supported a wide variety of bands. The most famous bands to come out of the Gilman scene were Rancid and even bigger was Green Day whose success became a sticking point for many of those who felt that signing with a major label and making any sort of money was in effect selling out.

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong approached Corbett Redford who went to high school with him looking for archival footage from the halcyon days of Gilman for a film that Armstrong wanted to make documenting  the scene. Not only did Redford have the footage that Billie Joe was looking for, he volunteered to direct the thing as well.

The result is one of the most exhaustively thorough music documentaries I’ve ever seen. Essentially chronicling the story of San Francisco Bay Area punk from its early beginnings to the break out success of Green Day in 1994, the movie contains footage of the bands who played the Gilman regularly and interviews with literally hundreds of people associated with the scene, from the musicians who played there to the volunteers who worked there to the writers who covered the scene to the artists who grew out of the scene. The film clocks in at about 2 ½ hours so it’s not something you sit in without some sort of commitment.

The length of the movie may be daunting to some; it’s hard to sit through 155 minutes of talking heads and snippets of songs but the frenetic editing pace makes it palatable. In fact, I was left wondering if with additional footage this couldn’t have been a mini-series rather than a movie although I have to admit a movie was an easier sell to something like Netflix than a miniseries based on a specific scene. Still, one has to admire the passion of all those involved from the filmmakers to the interviewees who made this happen.

The footage is in many cases extremely rare and unavailable anywhere else. For me, there was a nostalgic appeal in seeing bands like Operation Ivy, Neurosis and Kamala and the Karnivores, bands that figured in my Bay Area rock critic days and who now existed for me only as worn-out cassette tapes and memories – until now.

Redford utilizes animation sequences masterminded by Tim Armstrong of Rancid fame that recollects the artwork of the great punk zines. The animations are some of the best and most entertaining segments in the film and are worth seeing on their own.

One can’t understate the importance of Gilman as the ultimate expression of the DIY philosophy and of taking the punk ethic to the next logical evolutionary step. Not everything that came out of Gilman was amazing and life-changing but there was always an energy that radiated from the bands that played there regularly that were not present anywhere before or since. The Gilman is still there; some of the people who have been there since the beginning are too but for the most part, it’s a new generation trying not necessarily to live up to the accomplishments of those who came before them but to blaze their own trail while holding true to the tenets that have guided the Gilman collective since the beginning.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; people who find the music discordant and irritating doubtless will not find much to like here but it isn’t just the music that is important but the society that sprang from it. Love Green Day or label them sell-outs; they were an important part of the Gilman Street Experiment (almost said Experience there) and because of their success or maybe in spite of it, they are able to wield the clout to get a movie like this made. Punk scholars will appreciate this most of all.

REASONS TO GO: The concert footage is indispensable. The animated sequences are zine-like and cool. The Gilman scene gets the due it richly deserves.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much information coming at you in a documentary that’s a good half hour too long. There is an overabundance of talking heads here.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redford and the members of Green Day all went to Pinole Valley High School although two years apart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Monster Project

The Punk Singer


The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

(2013) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Tobi Vail, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Johanna Fateman, Corin Tucker, Tavi Gevinson, Jocelyn Samson, Lynn Breedlove, Kathryn Wilcox, Jennifer Baumgardner, Billy Karren, JD Samson, Leo Galland, Tamra Davis, Allison Wolfe, Jen Smith, Ann Powers. Directed by Sini Anderson

Feminism has deep roots going back to the women’s suffrage movement and Susan B. Anthony and continuing through the 60s, the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which remains unpassed) and Gloria Steinem. There were many who thought the feminist movement to be dead. Don’t tell the Riot Grrrls that.

Riot Grrrls is a movement that sprung primarily out of punk music made primarily by women which addressed women’s issues and adopted an aggressive feminist stance. One of the major forces in that movement was the band Bikini Kill and their primary songwriter, singer and frontwoman Kathleen Hanna.

Bikini Kill grew up in the Pacific Northwest but later relocated to Washington DC. They were often misunderstood by the general public and frankly misrepresented by the press as man-haters (which they clearly weren’t as the band’s guitarist, Billy Karren, is male). Hanna was also often described as the victim of rape by her father which she in the film addresses as completely untrue (rape and sexual abuse are frequent topics for Hanna in both Bikini Kill and her next band, Le Tigre).

As a stage performer, Hanna is energetic and passionate. She used her sexuality as a form of expression and her gamine good looks, which remind me of Zooey Deschanel, are arresting. One of her trademarks is to call women to the front by the stage and to ask men to stay in the back; this was a safety issue as at punk shows moshing could get violent and cause women to be injured and molested. Hanna wanted Bikini Kill shows to be safe places for women.

She is married to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, which makes for an interesting couple. He comes from a band who has written lyrics about women that are less than complimentary but he comes off as a devoted husband and one who supports his wife and her viewpoint completely. They’ve been married seven years although they’ve been together for much longer than that which is unusually long for relationships among rock musicians.

Hanna stopped performing back in 2005 and for a long while many of those who knew her didn’t know why. She used this film which debuted at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (which I personally think is the perfect place for a film like this) to announce that she had been diagnosed with late state Lyme’s Disease which prevented her from performing – she had told her bandmates in Le Tigre that she felt she had written everything she wanted to say which she in the film admits was untrue but that she felt safer in saying that than in admitting she no longer had control over her own body.

Cinematically, the movie doesn’t break any new ground as a documentary. Fans of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre will be happy to discover that there is plenty of archival footage of both bands – some of it never seen publically. There are a great many talking head interviews, mainly with women at Hanna’s request – she didn’t want the film to be “validated” by male experts which I can kind of understand, given her point of view.

Her performance with her new band The Julie Ruin (named for her solo album) at the Knitting Factory in New York City is captured at the end of the movie. It seems that Hanna is going to be back writing and maybe performing (although I can’t imagine she’ll be performing nearly as much) which to my mind is a welcome thing.

I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with Hanna shortly before she instituted a press blackout after continual misrepresentations in the mainstream press about her band and her philosophy. I was pretty much still finding my way politically so I’m afraid I probably came off as something of an oaf at the time, but I remember her passion, her humor and how articulately she expressed herself. One of the things I remember is asking why the Pacific Northwest seemed to be such a catalyst for social change as well as giving the world grunge. I don’t remember exactly what she replied but the thought clearly amused her. Obviously I was eager to see the film when I discovered it would be playing at the Enzian.

If I had the chance to interview her again, the one question I’d be interested in having her answer is whether the feminism she practices divides the sexes further and whether or not it would be healthier to encourage unity between the sexes. However, I must say that I came away from the film with three things. First, as a film it would have been better if it relied less on talking heads. Secondly, that feminism is far from dead and given the current war on women being practiced by the radical right, that it is needed much more now than ever. Thirdly, I came away respecting Ms. Hanna even more than I already did which was considerably. Even if you aren’t into punk or electroclash music (which my wife isn’t) you can still find a lot to appreciate in this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the language is rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign as well as by a benefit concert at the Knitting Factory headlined by Gordon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Days

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom