I vividly remember years ago, when she was promoting her debut album The Fame, when Lady Gaga was asked if she wore these outrageous costumes when she’s in the house, or does she were joggies and hoodies like everyone else.
She informed the reader in a gravelly New York drawl that, in fact, she opts to wear these couture creations all the time, when the cameras aren’t rolling. Cut to 2017, when in the opening scenes of her documentary Five Foot Two, Gaga is wearing sweatpants and a sports bra, grilling chicken and feeding her dogs.
Regardless of whether her first statement was completely true, a wry fabrication or whatever, is Gaga finally ready to let her guard down and show her little monsters what goes on behind closed doors?
Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Five Foot Two was made available to stream on Netflix and follows Gag during the recording of her fifth album Joanne, culminating with her show-stopping, gravity defying performance at the Super Bowl half-time show in February. Part of me was hoping for a continuation of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, the documentary following the singer’s game-changing Blonde Ambition Tour.
Truth or Dare it is not. And while on the topic of the Queen of Pop, it would be remiss to not discuss Gaga’s take on the pair’s tumultuous relationship over the years. Following years of comparison and seemingly mutual admiration, Madonna was not impressed with Gaga’s single ‘Born This Way’ — perhaps too derivative of her own single ‘Express Yourself’ — and branded Gaga’s simian of her “reductive”. Gaga’s states that she “just wants Madonna to fucking push me up against the wall and kiss me and tell me I’m a piece of s**t,” (who wouldn’t?) and is it wrong to wish Madonna was more upfront with her criticism as opposed to running her mouth in interviews. Can’t we all just get along?
Moukarbel’s direction is intimate, often jarringly so. Gaga has resigned herself to sharing this vulnerability at its most unsettling when she plays “Joanne” to her grandmother, seeking approval from the woman whose daughter died on lupus years before Gaga was even born. Between her father’s high emotions and swift exit from the room to the realisation that her grandmother has spent forty years moving on with her life, the scene leaves the viewer uncomfortable and uncertain as to why Gaga remains fixed on Joanne, and aside from a clear parallel with her creative stunt, why it continues to haunt and inform her work.
(Side note: I would like to have seen the film address why, after months of wearing a cowboy hat and talking about showing the real Gaga, she released ‘The Cure,’ and EDM pop song unlike anything on Joanne that sounds like ever other pop song out just now…)
What may be the most illuminating and painful aspects of the film is Gaga’s struggle with chronic pain caused by the onset of fibromyalgia, a medical condition characterised by chronic widespread pain and a heightened pain response to pressure. While most casual fans will have been aware of the singer’s medical problems, namely the broken hip that derailed her career slightly post-‘Born This Way’, the audience gains previously unseen insight into the depths of her body struggles. It makes for uncomfortable viewing seeing Gaga writhe and moan in pain and portrays humanity or vulnerability it has taken her nearly a decade for her to show the world.
There are glimpses of Gaga’s authentic personality displayed sporadically throughout but not frequently enough. It is only when she makes a funny joke or says something dry off the cuff that I realise that Gaga misses one of the major criteria to be a true gay icon: a self-depreciating humour. She has never really been funny, unlike Kylie or Cher or Dolly, who are able to send themselves up and endear us to them.
While Gaga bares herself in a way never quite achieved in her surprisingly short career, Five Foot Two still feels too controlled or orchestrated to feel authentic. Perhaps after over a decade of deconstructing fame and what it means to be a public figure she is quite simply incapable of displaying anything other than a persona whose prime objective is to perform. She may not wear a many of the bizarre and breathtaking outfits for which she was once synonymous, but she struggles to convince us of the difference between Gaga and Stefani, if such a difference really exists.
If nothing else, Five Foot Two functions as compelling look into what day to day life is like for this era of lady Gaga, but therein lies the predicament: the Joanne era has felt like a reach, a bid for personal reinvention that has not quite stuck with critics or fans the same way her previous work has resonated. Her vulnerability is engaging, which as a viewing feels a little exploitative in itself, but the film as a whole at least informs us of Gaga’s exploration of identity in the second decade of her career. Gaga remains one of pop cultures most fascinating and important figures. She says she wants to be an old lady rock star, which she undoubtedly and hopefully will be: it’s deciding how to get there that seems to be the challenge.