Is Lady Gaga actually in her own documentary? Debatable. “It’s Stefani,” is how the singer introduces herself when she takes a phone call. She was born Stefani Germanotta, sure, before “Poker Face” and “Born This Way” and whatever Artpop was and whatever American Horror Story: Hotel was. The world knows her better by her stage name, but Gaga: Five Foot Two (available now on Netflix) finds its subject in a moment of transformation. The singer has a David Bowie tattoo on her side, the lightning-bolt face from Aladdin Sane. That was the album Bowie released after he “retired” his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Are we watching something similar here? Is Gaga ending Gaga? “I don’t need to have a million wigs on to make a statement,” she says. “I can’t elevate it to a point where I become Lady Gaga again.” At one point, she tells her Creative Director that she wants a new look. “I think my uniform should be a black t-shirt, black jeans, and black boots.” Is this her real self? Do real selves consult their Creative Directors about uniforms?
Five Foot Two is a strange work, slippery, out of focus. It follows its subject through career high-lows, personal trials, Malibu banalities. She’s working on her latest album, Joanne, and preparing to play the Super Bowl. A relationship ends, distantly. It’s part of that odd and trendy new documentary genre: The Celebrity Trauma Hagiography, a sponsored celebration of a star’s splendid sadness. This isn’t a portrait of a famous person suffering trauma, mind you; the goal of a film like this is to portray the trauma of fame, forever up in the air, surrounded and alone.
So there are moments in Five Foot Two that you recognize: The lonely grand hotel rooms, the mournful confessionals delivered in the backseat of a car or a plane, tears in the makeup room, a strenuous focus on how strenuous the subject is working, handheld camerawork that suggests the truth behind the advertising. Musicians release movies like this as brand extensions – Katy Perry had Part of Me, Metallica had Some Kind of Monster – but you could also point to a fashion doc like The September Issue, or the Icarus mythmaking of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Harmontown if you’re cultier).
If you had to pick the Ur-Moment for the Celebrity Trauma Hagiography, it the Tokyo scene from Paris, Not France, the forgotten portrait of forgotten Paris Hilton. The socialite’s being driven through the city; she’s on the phone, giving an interview or speaking to a loved one. “Where I travel, I’m always working,” she says. “Basically, it’s all work.” Paris, Not France is awful, as is much of what Paris Hilton brought to culture, but it’s important to recall how completely she helped form the idea of celebrity in the last decade and a half. That’s the fame Gaga sings about all across The Fame, her blithe and wonderful first LP, the paparazzi, the beautiful and dirty and rich.
That Gaga appears in Five Foot Two only in flashback, as a reference point for what not to do. “Everyone thinks I’m gonna come out there on a throne, and a meat dress, and ninety shirtless men, and unicorns,” Gaga says, sounding a bit disparaging as she plans her Super Bowl performance. There’s a brilliantly crosscut sequence later, with Jean-Phase Gaga walking through a crowd of fans. As she walks and signs and selfies, we see cuts of Early Gaga, the wigs, the hats, the sunglasses, hair of every color, teeth crazy for the hell of it, Wiccan contact lenses, a general aesthetic that suggests an alien empress dressing for an Ascot Race in a Clive Barker hellscape. You think of, like, the Taylor Swifts at the end of “Look What You Made Me Do,” these nominally different “personalities” that symbolize trending topics from forty zeitgeists ago. Whereas you could pick any random Gaga style-persona from the turn of the decade – say, like, Sydney, 2010, Diet Coke curlers – and it still feels vibrant, weird, audacious, never in style and so never out.
I guess I should admit here my curious, profound, frustrated Gaga fandom. There’s no pop star in my adult life I’ve loved more than who Gaga was back then. Meta and dramatic, sincerely sarcastic, she had an Andy Kaufman-esque instinct for media stuntcraft but also an old-fashioned willingness to put on a show! She could sing and still can, that’s indisputable. And director Chris Moukarbel captures her indelible performance of “Bad Romance” at Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday. It’s mostly just Gaga on piano, decelerating the dance-pop groove to a hypnotic, John-Woo-Slow-Mo croon.
There’s a noirish glamour to that sequence. Conversely, there are moments of raw and casual power. Early in Five Foot Two, we find Gaga at her house, feeding her dogs. She’s comfortably dressed, gray tank top, just-woke-up hair; she casually mentions a fight with her then-fiancé. The singer initially seems loose, having a ball working with producer Mark Ronson; she talks about Madonna, about being a woman in the music industry, about Marilyn Monroe, about Anna Nicole Smith. “We can use none of that footage,” she tells the camera. She’s a credited producer, so she must have changed her mind, or maybe she recognized something authentic in that moment, freewheeling, digressive.
Her engagement breaks up, and there’s the hint of some genuine sadness on the margins. “I go from everyone touching me all day, and talking at me all day, to total silence,” she says at one point. “I’m alone, every night.” And there’s pain. Throughout the documentary, Gaga struggles with the after-effects of a hip injury, which causes full-body-pain so debilitating that it occasionally renders her unable to move.
It could seem, a few years back, that the singer had gone messianic, had started believing what used to seem like playful self-hype. (It’s tough to be funny when you title an album Artpop, even tougher when you tattoo the title on your arm.) But she’s got a sense of humor, the trench wit you get from constant pain. There’s a moment when the whole right side of her body is spasming, and she lays on a couch, crying. The pain’s one thing, but also, while we’re going dark, what would it be like to carry a child, a hip this busted, a body so inflamed? “Let’s put Trump on,” she ruminates, turning toward the TV. “That’ll knock me out.”
But next to that are bits that feel too produced, almost like comedy sketches. Gaga goes to Walmart to to see if they’re selling her new record, and it takes awhile for the staff to recognize her. And then they do, and selfies ensue. There are meetings with Mark Ronson in California and in New York, in rooms that look different yet the same, actual business purposes so obscure that you feel like you’re watching Last Year at Marienbad. Moukarbel’s going for a fly on the wall approach, but not every wall needs a fly-by, and there are a few too many non sequitur portraits of pointless celebrity.
Example: You see Gaga on the set of American Horror Story: Roanoke, having some kind of argument about the dialect she’s chosen for her ghost-witch-forest-lady. There’s something interesting here: Is Gaga upset about the directions she’s receiving? Does she get bored after a couple takes? But you also get the sense the scene was largely kept in because of the brief shot of Cuba Gooding, Jr. The doc’s fascinated by fame – before the Bennett birthday party, there’s a lingering shot of the place cards, a close-up on the name “MARTIN SCORSESE.” There’s a moment at the Super Bowl when former First Lady Barbara Bush passes Donatella Versace, why not.
In fairness, the old Gaga herself would’ve loved a moment like that. This doc captures her trying to change, become less a figure of artifice and conceptual style: “This is me with nothing,” to quote Gaga herself. The result of that transformation was Joanne, an album unquestionably more personal than her earlier work. Your mileage may vary. (I like “Million Reasons.” I miss the million wigs.) Five Foot Two wants to honor Stefani Germanotta, but it’s drawn to her great self-creation, a character she can’t shed. By the end, it’s trafficking in the kind of brand-building propaganda an earlier Gaga satirized. “There really isn’t anything bigger than this,” she says of the halftime show, and “It doesn’t get bigger than this.”
So forget verité, embrace the huge. The film’s best moment is its first, an upward-facing shot of Gaga rising on wires to the top NRG stadium. She’s ascending, like Jesus always does in his movies, but he usually waits till the end. B