I have never been a huge Lady Gaga fan. I jammed with the rest of the world to “Bad Romance” and gave props to her call to celebrate diversity in “Born This Way.” Otherwise, though, I have not kept up with her musical career or spotlighted social life.
Having said that, I was absolutely hooked by the 2017 Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two.” The film follows the pop star through making and releasing the album “Joanne” and her simultaneous preparation for her 2017 Super Bowl half-time show.
At the beginning of this process, Gaga’s engagement had just been broken off. At the start of the film, she seems empowered by and in her singleness, but this fluctuates throughout as she seems to need more or less emotional support and companionship. This sets the tone for a larger commentary on the hardships women face in the entertainment industry. Gaga repeatedly laments that it is hard for women to come into fame on their own. Once they reach that status, they often must sacrifice personal relationships to maintain their celebrity power. Another women-specific problem is epitomized in the beef she’s had with Madonna, an artist she otherwise respects. Madonna bad-mouthed Gaga publicly but not face-to-face. To try and bring attention to this unnecessary competitiveness, the documentary features a long scene in which Gaga and Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine record the song “Hey Girl,” all about women’s solidarity and support.
The documentary also features those relationships in Gaga’s life that have withstood the pressures of fame. The most important of these is with her father, a quiet but supportive presence in almost every scene. In fact, the significance of family is undeniable, as the album she is recording is titled after an aunt who died early from an incurable disease. Track “Joanne” is an emotional ballad to a fellow artist who was taken too young. One of the film’s most impactful scenes shows Gaga presenting the song for the first time to her father and grandmother, late Joanne’s brother and mother.
Another crucial relationship is one actually garnered through fame with Gaga’s producer Mark Ronson. Despite the sexism she critiques continually, she consistently praises that she doesn’t feel similarly slighted, stunted or silenced with Mark. This is indicative of the overall optimism Gaga bounces back to after each melodramatic, tear-filled scene.
One source of this drama is the constant physical pain she has been living with daily since a broken hip in 2013. She is apparently still trying to heal, and the film shows her dealing with pain every time she dances for a music video or sings in a show. The pain radiates throughout her body, but she shows her absolute adoration of her fans and the art they love by performing anyway, particularly in her extensive and strenuous preparation for the Super Bowl half-time show.
This dedication to fans is quite heavily highlighted. In one scene, Gaga surprises a young woman to the point of tears when the fan is talking to a cameraman about how Gaga’s music has carried her through hard and lonely times. It is this connection she wants listeners to feel through her music that the artist claims carries her through her physical and emotional pain.
The documentary itself—the film-making, music and production quality—is very well done. It grips the viewer right by the emotions from the start and is visually stimulating throughout, highlighting the calming down and maturing of Gaga’s once constantly outrageous fashion sense and musical tendencies.
Gaga herself, however, seems at times a bit less than genuine. She punctuates her repeated claim to romantic liberation with complaints of bitter loneliness at the top. More importantly, it is hard to ignore what must be exceptional personal and professional spending despite frequent remarks about social inequities. For example, she once acknowledges how grateful she is to have garnered all her wealth because otherwise her physical pain would have to go untreated. Given that Gaga is a celebrity who has been known to take time to speak with her non-famous friends, fans and family and speak up about social problems, it is disappointing that the documentary shows no real, tangible philanthropy.
The very making of a documentary film about celebrities is problematic in this regard, though, as is the amount of money spent on concerts, music videos and general Hollywood extravagance.
All-in-all, regardless of the valid and quite necessary social criticisms of some socioeconomic hypocrisy, the documentary as a film is well-made and gives raw insight into a star who at least appears to love what she does and for whom she does it. It probably won’t change your life, but it’ll keep you interested and remind you that the celebrity world is, in the end, far separated from our own.
Cover photo courtesy of the Toronto Film Festival.