There is a telling scene roughly two thirds into the documentary Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two that seems to succinctly capture the essence of the whole film and to a degree the artist herself. It shows Gaga sat at a white keyboard in a purpose built green room prior to her much anticipated Super Bowl performance, practicing her music quietly. The room is made up of a series of white fabric screens and is packed with costume racks, tables of makeup, giant flower vases and most of all, people. As she calmly taps away at the keys a masseuse kneads her exposed back, a makeup artist paints the skin around her eyes and a stylist gently tousles her hair. It’s probably the maximum amount of people a single person could have effectively working on them at any one time but neither them nor Gaga seem particularly bothered by the scenario. It’s therefore obvious that this careful but chaotic ballet of preparation is not an unusual occurrence as in the midst of all the noise and fuss, she sits perfectly still focused on one thing only; her music.
The film is not your average ‘look how hard I worked to become famous’ biopic. For one, despite her having such an already immensely eventful and well documented career, the film concentrates only on the completion and subsequent release of her latest album Joanne and the lead up to her Super Bowl performance; a period of roughly 6 months. It gives nothing that would be expected from a film about Lady Gaga; there is no detailed exploration of her fashion, no snippets of controversial performances or any window into her political activism.
For one, this assumes a lot from the viewer in that they are planted right at this particular moment in the Gaga cannon with zero revision. But maybe rightly so? Instead of wasting time trying to contextualize her career, the film delves right into her method of song writing and the immense effect things like her family and her health have on her creative process. Secondly, Chris Moukarbel is not your average director. A visual artist-turned-film-director, he has littered the film with everything from highly polished, handsome slow-motion sequences of her high energy performances to grainy steady-cam shots of her walking through her house, half naked, answering mundane questions about the decor. Moukarbel’s ability to seesaw between what appears to be expensive, audacious cinematography and basic, almost voyeuristic footage is an effective representation of the adjustments people with incredible fame must contend with. He has constructed one particularly disturbing scene in which we see Gaga leaving an office in New York and being (expectedly) confronted by small crowd of fans and paparazzi. She handles it well, graciously stopping for photos and autographs but the sequence is cut with archive footage from throughout her career in which we see her quite literally mobbed by heaving crowds as she attempts to do the same thing over and over again. It’s almost the only moment in the film that touches on the concept of celebrity in and of itself and not Gaga as an artist who just happens to be incredibly famous as a by-product.
Despite how the audience may feel personally towards her music itself, one thing that is impossible to not appreciate here is just how inconceivably talented Lady Gaga truly is. She comes across as a woman so perfectly in tune with her creativity, living and breathing every moment of the writing and performing process, constantly sourcing inspiration.
It is however, a sad state of affairs when we laud a performer because of this, when surely at some point in history, being able to write music and sing live must have been one of the most basic prerequisites for entering the industry in the first place. In a world where fame needn’t (and often doesn’t) equal talent, seeing Gaga holed up in a grimy studio writing, delirious with exhaustion, shouting, crying, constantly changing notes and lyrics and blasting that extraordinary voice, makes her presence in the music industry today feel all the more unique.
Another telling scene towards the end of the film sees Gaga casually walking into a Walmart to purchase a copy of the freshly released Joanne. After living through the personal turmoil with her throughout the creation of the album, the audience witnesses the final product stacked crudely on a shelf next to something that looks like it has just been churned out 6 minutes after an X-Factor win. It really does seem to undermine every effort taken to make the album as raw and personal as she does when the end result is exactly the same for the person who shows up to a studio and is handed a song to sing.
Given this, it’s almost baffling that there isn’t now a whole separate category for artists who actually write and perform their own music. It seems like they need to be completely separate from the rest in music stores or on streaming services to really be given the credit they deserve for the talent they have. But such is the state of the record industry. And as equally as fame does not always relate to talent, talent will not always lead to fame.
Ultimately what we see in Five Foot Two, is more Lady than Gaga. She appears reflective, wise and calm despite the disorder of her life as a popstar. She even has the maturity to address those remarks made by Madonna about her music, with composure and sincerity. There are no gimmicks, no meat dresses or unicorns, just quiet contemplation about life, her family and her fame. She strips back the costumes and the stage personas to reveal what is, in the end, just a woman with an incredible voice. And really, after you hear that, everything else seems, well, just kind of reductive.