The opening image of Gaga: Five Foot Two is of the eponymous pop diva being hoisted high into the air to set up for what will become her infamous entry into her much heralded 2017 Super Bowl LI performance, where she cabled down from the ceiling of Houston's NRG Stadium. But, for most of the documentary, Lady Gaga is notably grounded. We see her crying (quite a bit, in fact, and for multiple reasons including sadness, despair, and abject pain), visiting her grandmother to play a song she wrote about the daughter her grandmother lost at 17, bemoaning her failed romances, writhing in pain from longstanding issues follow a hip surgery in 2013, checking her phone before falling asleep on a flight, and nearly falling off the back of a horse during a photo shoot. For a pop star who made her name hiding behind a decade's worth of outr identities formed of bizarre costumes and outlandish fashions (including a dress made of raw meat), Gaga (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) is almost naked in this doc (at one point during a poolside meeting about her upcoming album, literally naked because, as she puts it, "It's more comfortable").
Directed by Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York) and co-produced by Gaga herself, Gaga: Five Foot Two is clearly meant to be a deconstruction, a revealing of the human side of a larger-than-life pop-culture character who is intensely loved by her fans (dubbed "Little Monsters"), heralded by critics, and utterly confounding to those who don't get her outrageous persona(s). Gaga spends much of the documentary engaged in relatively mundane activities, many of which revolve around the recording, promotion, and release of her 2016 album Joanne, which was both her most personal work and a decided change in terms of her musical direction (and hence a potential danger to her long-running popularity). Stripped of her attention-grabbing postmodern costumes and diva pretenses, Gaga comes down to earth and is rendered endearingly human (when she goes to Walmart late one night to buy copies of her just released album, neither the salesman in the music department nor the manager recognize her). The doc is notable devoid of performance footage outside of rehearsals, some bits of her playing on a rooftop in New York the night her album dropped, and her playing a beautifully stripped down piano-ballad version of "Bad Romance" at Tony Bennett's 90th birthday party). Don't expect to see extensive concert footage, which is often the bread-and-butter of documentaries about pop stars (Justin Bieber, One Direction, Katy Perry, to name a few of the more recent), because it ain't here.
In this regard, the film can be usefully compared to Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), which chronicled the Material Girl's Blonde Ambition tour at the height of her stardom. Gaga has often been compared to Madonna, something she herself notes several times, but the two documentaries couldn't be any different. Truth or Dare, which was directed by Alek Keshishian, a music video director who had worked with Bobby Brown and Elton John, was heavily invested in documenting the tour itself, with much of the running time given over to bold color footage of Madonna performing her hits around the world that is interspersed with black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage. Gaga: Five Foot Two, on the other hand, is more directly engaged in Gaga's off-stage/off-screen life, which is reflected in the title's humanizing of her typically garish media presence by reminding us of her diminutive physical status.
Director Chris Moukarbel is first and foremost a documentary filmmaker; in addition to his Emmy-nominated Banksy documentary, he directed Me at the Zoo (2012), a chronicle of the rise of YouTube, and created the HBO series Sex on //. His work here has a genuine sense of intimacy, as Gaga allows his camera into various realms that emphasize her vulnerability, her flaws, and her weaknesses, which only serve to empower her as a pop star by reinforcing her underlying humanity. The documentary isn't perfect, particularly in the way it refuses to supply much in the way of context regarding events for those of us who are not dedicated Gaga followers, although to have done so would risk making it seem more informational than dramatic. In the end, the film works because it conveys how, beneath all the make-up and wigs and bizarre fashions is an artist whose voice, while having commanded millions of dollars in album and ticket sales over the past decade, is only beginning to be heard.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (3)
Get a daily dose of Illinois Intelligencer news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.