David G. Hughes on Chris Moukarbel’s ‘Gaga: Five Foot Two’ (2017)
LADY GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO, the latest documentary to come from the public relations team of an international celebrity, is about existing between dichotomy. This is the story of Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga) attempting to take control of her body and her sexuality as it malfunctions from spasms, panic attacks and injury. It is also an exploration in documentary candidness in contrast to the glamour we most associate with the flamboyant pop-star; so we see her taking injections in the ass and applying make-up before strutting out to adoring crowds. Finally, it’s a study in success and failure; whenever Gaga receives a career boost her personal life takes a hit, forcing us to consider the nature of success.
This is a fascinating dramatic crux that director Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York) has pounced on, a man clearly capable of fashioning narrative structure out of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ vérité footage. The climax of Gaga’s trials and tribulations takes the shape of the half-time Super Bowl show, an event consistently referred to as the biggest and most important show of her life. Will she able to overcome her professional, personal and physical challenges to blow it out of the water? For a film produced by Gaga herself, I suspect you already know the answer.
The “candid doc” is surely becoming the next product in a well-managed stream of PR merch. Rudimentary and banal documentaries such as Ronaldo(2015) rarely reek of an actual desire for artful self-expression, but are often merely attempts to put their brand narratives under their own control, and not in the hands of salacious press. As such, they tell us we’ll see the “man behind the myth” and other superlatives, but most only ever feel cynical. This is the case once more here, a documentary companion to Gaga’s re-brand album, Joanne, which this film chronicles the making of. “How is this product different?” is a question capitalism asks to sustain itself, and Gaga answers with “this is more ‘real'”. As she talks about in the doc, Gaga is rejecting flash and dance in favour of “pure” emotion, a more relaxed fashion style. And how else do we convince of ‘real’ than a documentary?
All of this corporatised synergy is hardly surprising for a mega-star, made most apparent during an obligatory fan service sequence in which we learn about how she’s the only pop star who “truly does care about her fans” and how grateful she is, and so on. But the obvious commercial imperative at the crux of the film can make the moments that are deeply personal to the Germanotta family feel somewhat uncomfortable and, to a degree, exploitative. In a scene that seems entirely orchestrated with the intent of getting some old people to cry, Gaga plays her grandparents her albums titular track, a song about their dead daughter, exclusively for the camera. The camera swirls around the flat, trying to get a good close up on those tears that Gaga has pre-empted by telling her Grandma, “It’s okay to cry.” What should have been the films heart is squandered by camera movement and emotional manipulation that makes us feel like intruders in this home and this family.
Where the film is strongest is when Gaga is extrapolating on the restrictions she has felt as a female artist, fighting against patriarchal male producers and all the “bullshit” of her various love interests, all the while feeling lonesome without a partner. This sense of tragic imprisonment is resonant, likely applicable to the feelings of many woman, especially professionally successful ones. And it provokes you to ask, “If Lady Gaga’s powerful voice is choked, if she hasn’t felt able to express herself, who do you have to be, as a woman, to be heard?”
What the film could have done without was needless Michael Moore rip-off “stunt” scenes that documentaries often feel obliged to do, the worst of which being Gaga filling supermarket shelves with her newly released album and taking it up with the manager as to why they don’t have them prominently displayed. A documentary such as this, which must find acrimony in the celeb’s life, can by its nature support Jim Carrey’s notion that “I wish everyone can be famous, then they’ll realise that it’s not the answer.” But Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two, after spending 100 minutes swimming in Gaga’s tears and sweat, betrays this sentiment with a happy ending, coming back to that same old corker: fame is fabulous, keep aspiring. But for a pop-star like Gaga, whose reliant on “feel good” messages, I guess this is required to keep those records selling.
Available to stream on Netflix now