Gaga: Five Foot Two
Ah, the musician documentary. Which musical talent, once they have reached a certain level, hasn’t gone this route? Kate Perry, Taylor Swift and Black Sabbath are some of the varied acts that have undergone the “concert movie” in recent years. In truth, I’ve always found them drab, predictable affairs: the mad fans, the lonely hotel rooms, the bandmate grumblings and the heroic uplifting ending. Perhaps it’s because This Is Spinal Tap lampooned the concept so brilliantly, but it’s always been difficult for me to get engaged with such projects. But what about Lady Gaga? She could break that trend, right?
If she isn’t the most famous musician on the planet, then she is probably very close. Stefani Germanotta has come a long way from her Manhattan roots, turning into someone who is simultaneously considered one of the greatest singer/songwriters of the modern age as well as being a veritable renaissance woman in other fields, dipping into acting, fashion, art and other ventures whenever the desire seems to take her. But it doesn’t come without cost, as her somewhat recent hiatus from music demonstrated. Chris Moukarbel takes a behind the scenes look at Gaga’s life from around the summer of 2016 to the half-time show of Superbowl 51 earlier this year, in this Netflix offering, released recently. As the film begins, Gaga is at a low creatively – Artpop was poorly received a few years earlier – and personally – she breaks up with her fiancée around the same time as the start point – and it remains to be seen whether she can make her way back to the top again.
The opening shot sort of frames the story in much the same way as Gaga tends to frame herself, taking something predictable and putting a shocking, sometimes zany, but always interesting spin on it: in this case, looking at her from below as she prepares to be hoisted into the air ahead of the Superbowl 51 show, shot in just such a way that for a few seconds, it looks like someone who has just decided to hang themselves. That’s Gaga for you, a woman who has spent her professional career confounding expectations at every level at every turn.
But does this make for an interesting documentary? This is certainly a cinema verite style affair from the somewhat unknown Moukarbel (recognisable for a controversial low budget aping of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre and a sexual documentary series on HBO) who turns on the camera at various points of Gaga life – putting the final touches on her fifth album, Joanne, dealing with her chronic pain issues, hanging out with her family, interacting with the endless parade of fans and fanatics – and essentially lets her at it, to demonstrate her talents, expand verbally on numerous topics and to just go wherever her heart takes her. The end result is a very disjointed affair, barely held together by the somewhat linear nature of what it is showing, but, as stated, this does sort of fit with the helter-skelter personality at the heart of it all.
This is Gaga as a musical prodigy, almost effortlessly switching from editing room genius to quiet, acoustic wunderkind. This is Gaga as actress, as philosopher, as poet. This is Gaga as an icon, to people looking at what she wears to what she says, to what she supports. It’s almost strange, the laundry list of celebrities who come in and out of screen, treated with a casualness that belies their own stature in the public eye: musicians like producer Mark Ronson and Florence Welch, style icons like Donatella Versace and actors like Cuba Gooding Jr. Barbara Bush is seen in one section, just in Gaga’s general vicinity, Tony Bennett and Martin Scorcese are referenced. Gaga talks about being in a movie with “Bradley”…Bradley Cooper that is. They all just seem to revolve around the sun-like Gaga.
And this is also Germanotta, the person, who suffers from debilitating pain of both physical and mental kinds, and whose turbulent romantic life hangs over much of what she is doing. At times, she comes off as almost whining in her self-pitying nature, and one cannot help but notice that Gaga has an undeniable talent for making any problem, any situation and any question all about her, her experiences or her opinions, something that is a tad grating at times. When Joanne is released, she badgers Walmart employs to stock more copies, and seems to glory in being recognised as the creator.
You have to remember that she is presumably being out on the spot by the director constantly in the footage being filmed, and must also bear in mind searingly memorable moments, such as the singer screaming into a pillow as a physiotherapist attempts to alleviate the pain from her fibromyalgia. More endearing is when she discusses the intensely personal nature of Joanne, inspired by her aunt who died tragically young, most notably when she plays a song from the album to her elderly grandmother.
On the other hand, Five Foot Two has Gaga saying that family is the most important thing to her, but it only rarely showcases this explicitly, and this is indeed a flaw. When Gaga talks about how she wants to demonstrate how women don’t have to conform to what men expect of them, the absence of discussion on her upbringing is a tad strange: her mother, sisters, and grandmother are here, but mostly background.
For someone not altogether familiar with Gaga outside of her music and clothes, its almost refreshing to find that she is as kooky in “real life” as she is on the public stage, even if, at times, it really does seem a tad forced. In other words, there are times when it seems “weird for the sake of weird” as opposed to being true inspiration. The director plays into this a bit, like in one scene that seems to exist for the sole purpose of showing Gaga as a woman comfortable with taking a bikini off on the front lawn. But, most of the time, Gaga comes off as illuminatingly, frighteningly, genuine.
Genuine too is her apparent desire to get away from “Artpop” Gaga, and just be a public persona that doesn’t take quite as much work. “I don’t need to have a million wigs on to make a statement” she says at one point, and claims to look forward to being an “old lady rocker” that ages along with her fans. A good sequence contrasts the current Gaga passing through a paparazzi/fan frenzy with how she used to do it, and an underlying theme of sheer exhaustion is certainly evident, with being surrounded by people that want a piece of you, physically and mentally, then suddenly being alone. She struggles with being a role-model to legions of “Little Monsters”, expressing embarrassment when filmed suffering from another bout of debilitating pain. “Do I look pathetic?” she asks. One feels that a positive answer is a fate worse than death.
Is it an advert for Gaga? In a sense. While the film is at pains almost to draw a line between the Gaga of now and the Gaga of a few years ago, the one who wouldn’t step outside her door if she wasn’t wearing something altogether crazy, it still features plenty of product aggrandisement, constant references to the “Haus of Gaga” fashion line and certainly carries an overall feel of positivity towards the subject: perhaps, I regret to say, an inevitable result of Gaga herself being an executive producer. Moments of negativity here are few and far between, and all excusable: even when she blows up in rehearsal she does so in a manner that really makes her seem like the lone genius surrounded by dunces.
But then again, one cannot help but be affected by some of the lows here: Gaga gets her make-up done ahead of a medical procedure to tackle her debilitating pain problems, all while reacting to the fact that Joanne has been leaked early and downloaded by hundreds of thousands; while filming a music video, Gaga reflects on how every major professional moment in her life has had a corresponding romantic disaster; when prepping for the Superbowl, she has to make people understand that a complaint about a jacket lining is more than a diva moment, and a flaw that could sink the show.
Most of the cinematography here is handheld and acceptably basic, though there are a few moments of exceptional focus, such as the films sole example of letting Gaga sing a song to completion, a piano only version of “Bad Romance” at Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday. Other than that, it’s Gaga front and centre, allowed to talk as she wants. Five Foot Two has to be compared to Madonna’s Truth Or Dare, made around the same period as that singer’s career (Gaga’s comments on Madonna and their feud ring a little hypocritical at times), but there is a certain divergence in aim between the two productions: Madonna’s film is all about empowering the subject, Five Foot Two is a bit more obtuse.
It’s a perfectly watchable affair I suppose. If its goal is to give you an insight into how Gaga’s life is lived and how her process works and how she reacts to the fame, fortune and setbacks, then Five Foot Two does what it sets out to do. But, it could have gone further, done more, been a little less in love with the title character. Just like all concert/musician docs I suppose. Still, worth watching. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).