Director: Chris Moukarbel
Cast: Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Joe Germanotta
Watch Gaga Five Foot Two online in the UK: Netflix UK
It’s hard to remember a time before Lady Gaga. That’s phenomenal, given that she’s only been on the music scene for barely a decade. But what a decade it’s been, as she’s raced to become one of the bestselling music artists of all time, influencing and connecting with tons of fans in the process. With time and fame, though, comes that third part of the musical fame triangle: the music documentary.
“It’s like open-heart surgery. It’s always invasive,” she reflects in Netflix’s Gaga: Five Foot Two, a film that takes us behind-the-scenes of her life for a particularly tumultuous year. That’s the aim of the movie: an all-access, warts-and-all portrait of the pop icon. The problem, though, is that Stefani Germanotta – who is never referred to by her real name in the movie – is someone whose iconic status has been framed around her image: ever since her mask-filled early years, she’s meticulously crafted her professional persona, part mystery, part outrageous, part diva. The idea that she would ever let her guard down, then, is hard to believe.
It’s clear from the opening shot of her rehearsing for her January 2017 Superbowl gig that she’s a hard worker, driven and motivated to push herself and those around her. Everything has to be just right, from the choreography and lighting to the number of buckles on her jacket and the material on the sleeves. If it puts her off or distracts, she can’t do her best – and that’s the bar she constantly sets for herself.
It’s hard to watch rich, successful people complaining at their staff about tiny details that aren’t as they want them without partly thinking about privilege, wealth and first world problems. But while some of these moments may be carefully presented and knowingly framed, there’s also genuine pain to be seen on screen, both physical – Gaga broke a hip without stopping to realise it – and emotional (she’s still struggling to get over her break-up with fiancee Taylor Kinney). She laments that with every step of her career’s progression comes another step back in her personal life.
It’s those moments that ring truer than the scenes where she prepares for the launch of her new album, Joanne (named after her late aunt), which marks a change in direction and tone of the controversial star. A discussion with her fashion advisers, in which they talk about how inspired it is for her to come with the idea of dressing normally after years of increasingly extravagant outfits, feels more like fluffy promo material than anything. And, with the Superbowl show marking the climax of the movie and the album’s release on the horizon, that’s no mistake: this is very much a profile of an artist in transition, a film designed to position Gaga at a coming-of-age turning point.
For all of that commercial direction, it’s perhaps telling that the most honest sequence occurs when she goes into a Walmart to buy a copy of her CD in a video for social media, only for the shop assistants not to recognise her at all. (Another sees her play a track from Joanna to her family, only for their reaction to go in a slightly unexpected direction.) In an age of live-tweeting, tabloid papping and candid clips of celebrities on YouTube, it’s hard to foster a sense of seeing something we really haven’t before – and director Chris Moukarbel occasionally struggles for that sense of fresh insight.
What Moukarbel does capture, though, is the connection that Gaga really does have with her listeners – not necessarily in the cute moment where she surprises a fan with an in-person encounter, but in the sheer power and sincerity that goes into each note of her songs. Clips of her at the piano in the studio with producer Mark Ronson are as moving as the glimpse of her on-stage singing a powerfully slowed-down Bad Romance to Tony Bennett.
The movie could do with some more footage of her in action, which is perhaps the missing piece of this puzzle: as someone who has maintained, changed and created their image with great attention to detail, Lady Gaga is a spectacle to witness in full flow. The result isn’t quite the open-heart surgery that she speaks of: for the converted, this film mostly offers stuff they already know and will enjoy seeing. For the unconverted, though, there’s still value in highlighting Gaga’s natural talent and earnest work ethic, as well reminding them of the spine-tingling effect that her best tracks can carry.
It’s hard to remember a time before Lady Gaga. This movie won’t be as memorable as its subject, instead choosing to leave us with a tease of things to come. On that level, though, it’s an undeniable success: an artist who never stops performing, you’ll end the film eager to see what she does next.
Gaga: Five Foot Two is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.