Director: Chris Moukarbel
Stars: Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Bobby Campbell
“I want to become a woman in this business and grow up. I mean, you become famous at 21 or 22, it’s like you stop growing up,” so says Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta aka Lady Gaga in this new documentary following the creation of her 2016 album Joanne and her preparation for her performance at the Super Bowl. In this moment she acknowledges pop music’s (and by extension Hollywood’s) ravenous preoccupation with youth. Female starlets and pop phenomenons are courted early or not at all. It’s part of an ongoing epidemic that fetishises youth, one that shows no signs of abating. Ten plus years in the limelight and Germanotta is ready to properly evaluate what it takes to stay the course and be taken seriously.
That she has to fight for the latter is a fault of the male dominated industry that she finds herself surrounded and judged by. In early scenes she talks with understandable exasperation about a mentality within the business that equates all women equally as property. The imbalance remains prominent and unjust. Weary of working in this situation, Germanotta carved a career defining herself as ‘other’. If you want her to be sexy, she’ll be sexy, but on her terms. The music itself might not be your thing, or you could be a die-hard fan, but there’s little denying that her Lady Gaga persona has fought to stand out from the crowd through spectacle born of this frustration. In Gaga’s world, arch fashion statements are just one way of pushing against the pricks.
Gaga: Five Foot Two gives Germanotta a platform from which to voice her grievances about the pop world, but it’s function in the main is celebratory. Having struggled for the last decade against having her career and her personal life guided by men, she has reached a place of newfound tranquility, or so it initially seems. She talks of feeling more secure in her femininity and her appearance than ever before. Her prior time in the limelight may have been fueled by headline grabbing music videos and bizarre outfits, but she’s not previously felt as confident in her own talent.
Moukarbel documents her writing songs and playing them in the studio where she feeds producer Mark Ronson ideas about additional instrumentation as she sits isolated at her piano. The gestation of the song “Million Reasons” is a perfect example of this. The film repurposes her not as a glitzy star, but as a creative soul. It fulfills its role as an affirmative puff-piece for the fans, reassuring them that their hero is the intelligent artist they’ve always believed her to be, even as she also gets high on camera and riffs on Madonna’s apparent beef with her. To those with no stake in the singer/songwriter’s career, it provides a welcome if not particularly revelatory insight into who this person is. The stripped down nature of this film certainly feels in step with the intent of Joanne; an album dedicated to the memory of her sister, of family tragedies, of revealed truths.
One is tempted to see this all as a shrewd publicity tool to present Germanotta without glamour in keeping with her latest release. Having broken her hip three years prior to filming, Five Foot Two also documents a rebirth of sorts in Germanotta as she returns to the stage following a period of time that allowed her to take stock and consciously process the changes she wants to make in her life. In that respect it bares a certain resemblance to Beyoncé documentary Life Is But A Dream from 2013 which examined the creation of her album 4 following a split from her father’s management while wrestling with hiding a pregnancy. That film felt controlled by its star and therefore a little compromised; another piece of a larger marketing campaign. Five Foot Two is similar. No matter that Moukarbel includes takes that Germanotta instructs him not to, she’s a credited producer of the film along with her manager Bobby Campbell. One senses not so much that this is contrived, but that the final cut most certainly has her blessing. Germanotta appears sincere throughout, but she’s also intelligent enough to know how to shape her own image.
As the Super Bowl performance comes to feel like a career summation, celebrity narcissism courses through, despite the best intentions to the contrary. Hell, its unavoidable given the context. It’s there in the rarely documented ‘diva’ moments (a recorded breakdown is set to footage of Gaga doing a shoot in a swimming pool, bringing to mind the Hollywood comment of Sunset Boulevard, presumably deliberately). It’s there as we join her through various therapies and treatments for her ongoing physical traumas (enduring pain but providing it for the camera feels like its own kind of performance). It’s definitely there when she visits a WalMart to check how well her CDs are positioned. In judging these moments, however, it is easy to lose sight of the idea that this life, glamorous as it is, takes its own toll. Resilient as the Gaga image may be to mutation, the Germanotta reality is less so. The battle between keeping it real and making a spectacle is ongoing, and not necessarily a success in this instance.
Germanotta says of herself that she is “a woman struggling, now, instead of a girl”. The struggle remains there. “Sorry I’m a girl,” she cries into Ronson’s arms and he asks what she is talking about. Far as she may feel she has come, Five Foot Two acknowledges the journey isn’t over.