“The film gets closer to [its subject] than many public figures would feel comfortable with allowing.”
by Ken Bakely
There are no pretensions. Chris Moukarbel’s Gaga: Five Foot Two knows that you have seen Lady Gaga’s performance at Super Bowl LI, and so it does not show it. It knows that you are aware of Lady Gaga’s career path, and what led her to this moment in 2017, and so it does not recap it. If you didn’t, then you wouldn’t be watching this movie. The film chooses to focus on crafting an intimate portrait, rather than an encompassing picture. When someone becomes famous, we begin to think of them as an entity, a product, a brand. But obviously there is still a person there, as human as anyone else. Here, we are reminded of that, and this is done without commentary but with sincerity.
One of the signs of a true professional is that you can take one look at them and never imagine a world in which they did anything else. Although Gaga: Five Foot Two is mostly devoid of any singing, there is a scene in which Gaga performs a piano ballad version of “Bad Romance” at Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday party. Within a few notes, the film transfixes itself, evaporates away the audience and the context and what else is going on in her life, and shows us the artist. In the moment, we can’t imagine her having done anything else. She is a born entertainer. It is where she extracts her energy from. The movie transmits this information to us in one sequence, occurring about halfway through the runtime, and it adds context to what follows and perspective to what we have just seen.
She is frequently exhausted. Now that we know she has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, there’s an added meaning to the moments in which she undergoes physical therapy, or those when she collapses on a couch, cries, presses ice packs to her body, and is unable to move. But even if we did not know why she was in pain, Moukarbel does not depict her suffering for the sake of suffering. It is all part of a biographical snapshot, a greater understanding of her professional drive and where she comes from. Beginning with the pre-production of her album Joanne, and ending right at the moment she ascends on wires at the Super Bowl halftime show, Gaga: Five Foot Two subverts the falsities and the composed structure of the average pop star documentary. It presents moments, meaningless in the abstract, but in this order, they become fascinating.
Note that I have not used the word “real.” I wouldn’t want to be so presumptuous. Is this the “real” Lady Gaga? She gets stoned and goes on a prolonged rant about how she wishes Madonna would criticize her to her face instead of talking through the media. Maybe that’s her. It sure doesn’t seem like something she would want to fake. But I can’t say for a fact that it’s actually her, and moreover, such discussions are irrelevant. What matters when discussing this movie is how Moukarbel documents her, and allows her to be depicted to us. Gaga: Five Foot Two constructs a time frame, fills in a wide variety of personal and professional settings, and presents a hypothesis of the creative workflow of one of the most famous people in the world.
On that merit, it succeeds, and it’s interesting and thorough and entertaining. It would have been better if had narrowed down its scope a bit more, though. Documenting what feels like several months to a year leads to choppy clips with massive inferred jumps in time. Gaga: Five Foot Two is at its best when it backs away from the forefront and shows an event from beginning to end, free from excessive editing or clutter. Regardless of whether Moukarbel has cut together represents a sufficiently representative pastiche of Lady Gaga, the film gets closer to her than many public figures would feel comfortable with allowing. This is a sign of a filmmaker who recognizes the power and responsibility of such access, and a subject who is dedicated enough to allow it. Over the past few years, Gaga has drifted away from the outrageous outfit-wearing, controversy stirring persona that took the public by storm in the early 2010s. This movie feels like a logical companion piece to that career transition. But it also compels on its own.