Wild Ones August 17, 2020
On Suzi Q and The Go-Go's
it was always Quatro, rather than the whole unit, who stuck out most.
Suzi Q is a standard-fare documentary — stylistically unflashy, conventionally structured. What helps it, I think, is the general lack of appreciation of Quatro, who went on to become an internationally lauded artist after going solo as a bassist-singer in the 1970s, by the American
mainstream. She’s widely considered the first woman rock-‘n’-roller in Presley’s mold to really hit it big (which is not to be conflated with the suggestion that she is the first woman rock-‘n’-roller to succeed). Part of the less-familiar viewer's enjoyment is rooted in discovery, which then leads one to feel what the film unquestionably wants fans both new and old to feel: newfound admiration.
Suzi Q can sometimes feel hagiographic. Quatro, as the main talking head, tells her stories with such dramaturgy that I couldn’t help but sense there was a hint of overstatement in some of her responses. Quatro’s professional highs and lows are, for most of the film’s runtime, most emphasized, which can make the glimpses into Quatro’s inner life as she was experiencing the height of her fame (mostly internationally rather than in the U.S., where she continues to be best known for her role on Happy Days and for FM-friendly single "Stumblin’ In") feel cursory. I was still struck, though, by the moment where Quatro reveals that when she first moved to the U.K. in pursuit of solo success, she often cried herself to sleep at night in her cramped flat. Yet despite her misery, she never considered going home — at least not until she’d proven herself.
It’s hard not to be mesmerized by Quatro’s rise, especially in the U.K. Footage of interviews and shows from the time not only remind us of how unprecedented her raucous style was (both musically and sartorially) but also how her so much as existing was a sort of marvel. Personal overtakes the professional toward the end of the feature, when the film’s narrative isn’t as much caught up in the turbulence of Quatro’s industry roller coaster. It’s here that the movie is most potent and insightful, even though the excitement of reliving someone’s come-up never exactly falters in a rock documentary. Director Liam Firmage digs into the toll Quatro's fame took, mostly from a present-day perspective; so much hurt from decades ago clearly remains raw. Though Quatro is quick to say she isn’t that regretful, she's still mournful of how she forewent her childhood, essentially, for music. During her high-school years, she went to gigs, not dances. And when label executives first expressed interest in her as a solo artist, that meant she couldn’t bring along the bandmates with whom she’d strengthened her bona fides — bandmates that included her two sisters.
In interviews with the other Quatros, it’s pronounced how much this left a mark. Although probable that if in her position the other Quatro siblings would have done the same thing she did, it’s understandably hard to recover when your own dream is curbed so unceremoniously while your sister, who worked closely alongside you, experienced
astronomical fame. What does it feel like to get left behind like this? The siblings, enduring bouts of resentful estrangement over the decades, now seem to be on good terms. But the subject of Quatro’s success, and her becoming an influential icon, still strikes a nerve. Arlene Quatro humorlessly muses that she will never be a fan of her more-famous sibling. She says this is purely because they’re sisters, but the subtext is that she’ll never be a fan because she can’t quite listen to her music and not be a little angered.
Quatro’s parents harbored indignation, too, emptying their home of her belongings almost as soon as she left for the U.K. and leaving her hurtful voicemails as she set out to chart her own path. Quatro didn’t hear her father say he was proud of her until she was 36, when she uncharacteristically starred in a stage production of Annie Get Your Gun, for instance. It ate at her, having a family that fundamentally disowned her for pursuing her dream and then living it.
The latter project is just one example brought up in the documentary of how limiting Quatro felt her stage persona becoming as she aged. She starred on Happy Days for a couple of years in the late-1970s, became a mother, and dabbled in theater. Quatro loved doing all these things — in some shape or form bucket-list items — but was dismayed by how any public reaction to personal evolution, however positive, tended to bring up how it was out of character. She didn’t want to leave Happy Days, but higher-ups worried it would tarnish her reputation. Her first marriage, to gruff bandmate Len Tuckey, soured in part because he didn’t like it when Quatro decided in her 30s to explore other creative outlets that on the surface betrayed her nail-tough music and image.
The feature is so invigoratingly honest toward its last act that I wish it explored the harder truths of Quatro’s ‘90s and beyond. The coda accentuates what is nevertheless true, and electrifying, about Quatro: that she is still doing what she loves. She put out her most recent album in 2019, with production help from her son; he yearned so much to hear a return to form for his mother that he took matters into his own hands. But the movie is so candid during its last act that it might have benefitted from leaning a little more into the years that immediately followed her light dimming. What does it feel like to experience her ‘70s and then have this inevitable fade? Something rock documentaries like Suzi Q don’t often grapple with very much are the common, inexorably plateaued middle years of an icon like Quatro: that awkward space between the initial ascension and the late-in-life re-appreciation.
After noting Quatro’s frankly outré — truly ballsy — decision to dramatize for the stage the life of the theater actress Tallulah Bankhead in 1991, the movie becomes murky. It’s as if the following couple of decades didn’t exist, or simply weren't worth talking about. I think that to really capture someone, like Suzi Q seems inclined to, it's imperative whole decades not be subjected to neglect. For a subject like Quatro, additional comprehensiveness is appealing — she’s compelling, and, earnest dramatic inflections aside, a magnetic storyteller. Still, the documentary succeeds as a well-deserved, well-told mythologizing of an artist who should be far more often mythologized than she is.
Suzi Quatro in an archival photo featured in Suzi Q.
the crowd, Quatro was exhilarated — to the point, as she tells us in the new biographical documentary Suzi Q (2020), that seeing him on stage profoundly changed something in her. “The light bulb went over my head,” she recalls. “‘I’m going to do that.’” A few years later, when the Beatles were getting huge internationally, Quatro’s sister, Patti, proposed putting together an all-female equivalent made up of girls from their Detroit neighborhood. Quatro happily joined in. When the group, first called the Pleasure Seekers, then Cradle, got together, they didn’t really know what to do with their instruments. But they figured it out. As the years passed, their music, and musicianship, got better. But
uzi Quatro was 5 years old when Elvis Presley first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. As the 21-year-old rock star played “Hound Dog” for
n the new Showtime documentary The Go-Go’s, which chronicles the rise and fall of the all-woman power-pop group that flourished in the early 1980s, Suzi Quatro is never explicitly cited by members as an influence. But
it’s undoubted that whether or not she directly affected the L.A. fivesome, her rise in the 1970s helped pave the way for them by way of achieving mainstream success. Although only commercially ubiquitous for about five years, the Go-Go’s, who earned their chops gigging extensively in the late-’70s L.A. punk milieu, were astronomically successful during their tiny window of inescapability. (Their super-specific claim to fame is that they are the most successful all-woman rock band who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs.) Their terrific debut album, 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, is one of the greatest-selling debut LPs in music history; they became mainstays on the then-newborn MTV, which helped them dominate.
The documentary broadly covers the narrative of the Go-Go's as it’s widely known. The TL;DR version has long gone that money and drugs fucked everything up. But, unlike the Quatro documentary, which spends more time marveling at its subject’s success than it does the pitfalls accompanying it, The Go-Go’s is a little more slanted toward the struggles and darker truths of this lightning-in-a-bottle group. That isn’t to say it understates some of the group’s more stunning feats: how lead songwriter/guitarist Charlotte Caffey wrote the tireless “We Got the Beat” in just a few minutes after watching a sci-fi show that included the song’s trademark DUH DUH; how last-minute replacement bassist Kathy Valentine learned the whole of the band’s catalog on a multi-day cocaine binge (a skilled guitarist, she’d never laid hands on bass before, either); the moment when, while on tour opening for the Police, Sting came into the band’s dressing room with champagne to announce that it had gotten its first No. 1 in the U.S.
The Go-Go’s kept pushing despite being met with exhausting misogyny at every turn. They played to male-dominated crowds in the early days who often jeered “show us your tits!”; they got rejected over and over by male record executives who might write bullshit like “best of luck with your enterprising girl band.” Their indefatigability, paired with their infectious chemistry, continues to make them lovable as they’ve pushed on, albeit more intermittently, over the years. We’re reminded that most bands, even if eventually meeting acrimonious ends, start off as really good friends, but how much that can warp when artistic partnerships and a thirst for success become a part of the equation.
After watching the documentary, we’re just as partial to remembering the staggering cruelty the band wasn’t averse to. It’s as much a movie fostering a new recognition of a genuinely great group as it is one testifying to how rock stories are not always all that rosy. There is, for instance, their abrupt booting of founding bassist Margot Olavarria in favor of L.A.-scene regular Valentine. Members had their longtime manager, Ginger Canzoneri (whom they also discourteously fired later on), break the news to Olavarria. No members took the time to follow up. This was a choice, as all members can attest to, that got the Go-Go's shunned from the L.A. music scene from which they originally sprung. Olavarria was a dyed-in-the-wool punk and didn’t like the poppier direction in which the group was going — “It was just becoming less about art and more about money,” she says at one point. But why so callously sack her from something for which she’d help come up with in the first place, and to which she had dedicated so much of her time? You can sense how heartsick she must have been watching her former band, who discarded her like an eaten apple, shoot up the charts so shortly after her firing.
When frontwoman Belinda Carlisle and Caffey quit the group following songwriter-rhythm guitatist Jane Wiedlin’s departure (she left over a monetary dispute following the release of 1984’s Talk Show), they cold-heartedly told Valentine and drummer Gina Schock that they had the utmost authority to dismantle the band. Caffey wrote the songs; Carlisle had the voice. The documentary savvily conveys how new, unthinkable success can bring out the worst in people. With the decades behind them, group members unreservedly acknowledge much of their insensitivity. It’s rare to see a rock documentary, like this one does, dedicate so much time to airing out emotional harms inflicted by others. Olavarria's soreness is given more screen time than the creation of "We Got the Beat."
Some cruel decisions wound up paying off in some way or another. The band didn’t fully click until Valentine was hired, for instance. But the movie, directed by Alison Ellwood, lucidly shows how decades-old hurt can really marinate — almost turn into a full-blown trauma. For Wiedlin, the injury of Carlisle and Caffey refusing to let her sing lead on the most personal song she’d ever written, Talk Show’s “Forget That Day,” still seems wet to the touch. And when Canzoneri talks about being in the room while her once-cherished band ravenously eyed new managers, her anger feels as red as it might’ve at the time.
Pain, however, doesn’t dominate too much in The Go-Go’s, even if it is extensively detailed. What overrides are the group's formative joys, and the truth that they were equal parts trailblazers and gifted musicians. At the end of the movie, several industry talking heads, including Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, who credits the Go-Go’s with pretty much changing her life, voice their dismay that the act has not been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Plenty of bands have gotten in having made music just as influential, and having achieved meteoric success under similarly fraught conditions in a miniature time frame. One finishes the documentary thinking, when’s it their turn? Suzi Q., too.
Suzi Q: B
The Go-Go's: B+