Gaga: Five Foot Two demonstrates how the pop auteur has always been far more ‘authentic’ than the clichéd parameters set by the music industry
Over the years, countless interviewers have made it their earnest mission to discover the ‘real’ Lady Gaga. Arguably, only one has actually done it well. In 2011, Anderson Cooper conducted a series of interviews with the star for a short documentary entitled The Art of Fame, which spawned some genuinely revealing quotes. “I have studied the art of fame,” she says with a smile, referencing the themes of her blockbuster debut album. “I know how to maintain a certain amount of privacy without feeling like I’m withholding something from my fans. My philosophy is that, if I am open with them about everything, and yet I art-direct every moment of my life, then I maintain privacy in a way.”
It’s important to keep these words in mind when exploring the themes of Gaga: Five Foot Two, the recently-released Netflix documentary which loosely answers the same questions, albeit in a less direct way. In keeping with her earlier statement, Gaga herself has a production credit on the 90-minute film, which follows the creation of latest album Joanne and builds up to her headline-grabbing SuperBowl performance from earlier this year.
Unlike most glitzy, performance-driven pop star documentaries, Gaga: Five Foot Two seems to pull no punches. Within minutes, we see the star in tracksuit bottoms and an extremely uncomfortable-looking thong leotard. She is cooking in her kitchen while she calmly, bluntly explains that her threshold for bullshit with men is now non-existent – a reference to the then-crumbling, now-finished relationship with ex-fiancé Taylor Kinney.
This scene sets up the feeling of direct honesty which permeates the entire documentary; as well as snippets of conversations with family and fellow artists, we see Gaga crying in agony from the chronic pain which recently halted her European tour, and cradling her late best friend Sonja Durham, to whom she dedicated Joanne bonus track “Grigio Girls”.
Lashings of glamour and, occasionally, controversy, are also nestled in alongside these more personal moments. The star even gives a statement about her feud with Madonna, which fans and critics alike have been waiting for since Madge dubbed Gaga ‘reductive’ in an extremely meme-worthy 2012 interview.
“The thing with me and Madonna is that I admired her always, and I still admire her, no matter what she might think of me,” says Gaga, before expressing frustration that the star never had the nerve to insult her to her face. She then makes a (pretty weird, tbh) analogy about a guy who tells her she’s hot through a note rather than having the guts to spontaneously grab her for a make-out session, ending with the deliciously headline-worthy quote: “I just want Madonna to fucking push me up against a wall, kiss me and tell me I’m a piece of shit.”
The sense of rawness and vulnerability that characterises Gaga: Five Foot Two is unsurprising, in the sense that it follows on perfectly from her latest album. Joanne has been billed as Gaga’s most personal release yet, an exploration of grief, pain and heartbreak focussed through the deeply personal lens of her late aunt, whose death – from complications caused by lupus, which Gaga also suffers with – devastated her family.
This family focus is reiterated throughout the documentary, in the form of glimpses at childhood portraits and anecdotal family stories. One particularly poignant scene shows the star flicking through old photo albums at her grandma’s house before sitting down to play her the album’s simple yet undeniably effective title track. “Girl / Where do you think you’re going?” intones Gaga’s voice through the speakers, as the star herself sits amongst her family, tearing up quietly. “You like it?” She asks her grandma. “I wrote it for you.”
“Although now more visible than ever, this ‘human’ side of Gaga has always been there for those willing to look”
Although now more visible than ever, this ‘human’ side of Gaga has always been there for those willing to look. 2009 ballad “Speechless” is a stomping, whisky-fuelled ode to her father, who had recently undergone heart surgery at the time. “The Edge of Glory” was written about the final moments of her grandfather’s life. Even ARTPOP featured the one-two punch of “Mary Jane Holland” and “Dope”, which respectively chronicled her use of weed and liquor to battle through chronic pain and the crushing lows which came after she stepped off stage and away from the highs.
Gaga’s detractors often either missed or ignored these details, letting themselves be won over only when she played the game. When critics thought the synth-driven production and filtered vocals on her debut were only there to mask a lack of actual musical talent, she took to winning them over by performing with nothing more than a piano. This attitude also buoyed the unashamedly self-indulgent Cheek to Cheek, an album of jazz standards recorded alongside the legendary Tony Bennett. By this point, she didn’t need to prove she could sing – she did it purely because she wanted to.
The fact that her image has always been so heavily dissected is also telling of the way women are treated in the music industry. Gaga has said that she’s an academic when it comes to clothes, earning her high-fashion credentials with a series of archive looks pulled from the racks of Mugler, McQueen, Alaïa, and Versace. It’s clear that she’s a die-hard fashion fan and understands the power of clothing to communicate a message, yet when she expressed her creativity through conceptual clothing and gag-worthy looks (“Yasss Gaga, you look so good!”), she was written off as style over substance. This is indicative of the double standards which still plague women in music – they should be sexy enough to win over fans, but serious enough to be deemed credibly by critics.
She discusses these early conversations with marketing managers in the documentary: “When they wanted me to be sexy, or they wanted me to be pop, I always put some fuckin’ absurd spin on it that made me feel like I was still in control,” she says defiantly. “So, you know what? If I’m going to be sexy at the VMAs and sing about the paparazzi, I’m going to do it while I’m bleeding to death and reminding of you what fame did to Marilyn Monroe.” She ends the conversation, laughing, with one of the film’s most telling remarks: “You can use none of that footage.”
She might joke that she has no creative control but, in reality, she knows exactly what she’s doing, and it’s brilliant. In one scene, we see her topless on a sun-lounger during a business meeting in which she agrees with stylists that touring in nothing more than a uniform of denim cut-offs and a black t-shirt is actually the most unexpected move she could make. Sure, she finally gave critics what they wanted and ditched the wigs, but she did it on her own terms when it felt right. Ultimately, it’s easy to praise this documentary for its candour, but it’s important to acknowledge that it only seems particularly intimate because that’s exactly what it was created to be.
Incidentally, Gaga’s re-invention and the praise for this documentary reveals that the music industry still has clichéd parameters for ‘authenticity’, especially when they’re applied to women – all it takes is a few guitars, make-up free photoshoots and low-key outfits to convince critics that your artistry is valid. In actual fact, the same honesty Gaga is now being praised for has always been there, it’s just that nobody took it seriously because it was veiled underneath vintage Margiela and the occasional lick of autotune. This documentary reveals no more than we already know, and that’s okay – if you think Gaga: Five Foot Two is a glimpse at the ‘real’ Gaga, you’re missing the point: she’s been there all along.