Lady Gaga has constructed her own reality over the last decade, building a larger-than-life persona via elaborate costumes, gigantic stage shows, and an army of “little monsters” that found common ground, strangely, as outcast acolytes of one of the world’s biggest pop stars. She’s been a meat-dress-wearing fashion plate, a showtune belter, and a pure pop star in the Madonna vein. (More on that later.) The throughline has always been a knowing artifice presented as a pure artistic vision, but what’s left when all of the characters have been exhausted? The Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two tears the curtain away completely, or at least it appears to, with fly-on-the-wall footage of rehearsals, studio sessions, public appearances, massages, late-night conversations, doctors’ appointments, and multiple crying jags.
Either she ignores the camera like a pro, or Gaga really doesn’t mind letting it all hang out. There are scenes in which she’s clearly aware of an audience, but then again, when you’ve sold tens of millions of albums, maybe it always feels like there’s someone watching. It’s hard to tell whether she’s playing for the camera or just playing for the people she’s constantly surrounded by—her parents, her hair and makeup folks, her manager, her collaborators. When she seems truly candid, Five Foot Two feels voyeuristic: Gaga (pretty much everyone just calls her Gaga) has battled chronic pain for years, and she’s frequently at war with herself—one side driven to perform, the other given to complaining about the pain. Inside one doctor’s office, she gets a series of shots on camera; minutes later, she’s being made up for an interview. It’s an intense, weird life.
That intensity is driven by the dual pressures of her 2016 album Joanne and her appearance at the 2017 Super Bowl. For the former, she’s decided to very artificially strip away some of her own artifice, making jeans and a T-shirt her new statement. That decision is made with the sort of sycophantic help you’d imagine a star of Gaga’s magnitude is surrounded by constantly, in one of the film’s squickiest scenes. Everyone around her seems very ready to not only agree with her ideas, but to praise them. It’s a little cringeworthy, as is another, later conversation during which Gaga spontaneously decides to take her bikini top off mid-conversation.
Still, Five Foot Two feels far less contrived than its obvious antecedent, Madonna’s Truth Or Dare. And in a fun twist, one of this film’s most honest moments is a drunken Gaga lamenting that Madonna criticized her in the press for biting her style, rather than doing it to her face. But Lady Gaga is earnest where Madonna was constantly arch, and Gaga is more openly desperate both to please other people and herself. (She’s less cool and more human, in other words.) When she plays her grandmother a new song inspired by her aunt—the titular Joanne, who died at age 19—it’s both slightly embarrassing and slightly touching: She wants her grandmother to be affected by the song so badly, though it’s not clear if Grandma was. Elsewhere, Gaga bemoans the fact that professional success comes at the expense of her personal life: Every milestone is clouded by a breakup. And in one of the most telling breakdowns, she laments, “I go from everyone touching me all day, and talking at me all day, to total silence.” She’s never without a strong emotion, which must get exhausting, even as it makes her a fascinating subject.
That said, the first stretch of the doc can get a little dull as it attempts to humanize her. But by the time Gaga is prepping for her insanely over-the-top Super Bowl performance and running around the world promoting Joanne, it’s pretty breathless. Whether Lady Gaga’s music strikes you as important or not doesn’t matter for these purposes: She’s a huge personality in a small package (yes, the title is her height) who’s constantly taking big swings with her work. Five Foot Two does a nice job getting way behind the scenes of a non-stop, sometimes grotesquely glamorous life.