Gaga: Five Foot Two review – pint-sized music doc wallows in self reflection

Despite artful direction and meticulous curation by Gaga herself, the documentary never quite shakes the feel of a longform advert for the singer’s new phase – one that’s preaching to the converted

It’s been a transformative year in the life of Stefani Germanotta, a cycle purportedly captured in the new documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, which is streaming on Netflix starting Friday. The vérité-style feature tracks the artist during the recording, release and promotion of her fifth studio cut, Joanne, culminating with her triumphant performance at the Super Bowl half-time show. The title, a nod to both the performer’s diminutive stature and the Guy Lombardo number, showcases the sincerity and humor and artistry that’s engendered a connection with her legion of Little Monsters over the years, but not even as formidable a talent as Gaga can overcome the inherent pitfalls of the authorized popstar documentary.

Artfully directed by the Banksy profiler Chris Moukarbel and meticulously curated by the subject, who doubles as executive producer, the narrative follows the familiar beats of the genre with similarities to 1991’s Madonna: Truth or Dare. That similarity will do no favors for an artist who’s sparred with comparisons to Her Madgesty, which are addressed directly, and amusingly, on more than one occasion. Nearly a decade after she soared to global success with 2008’s The Fame, with an array of masks, headgear, and wigs to conceal her persona, there are moments of revelation and self-reflection dressed as a compelling pitch for the present chapter and ones to come. But not nearly enough of them, as Five Foot Two never quite shakes the feel of a longform advert for Gaga’s new phase that’s preaching to the converted.

The opening act takes place largely in the negative space of the popstar’s life: the scenes are mostly abbreviated, the musical numbers truncated to minute-or-less glimpses of studio sessions, save for a hauntingly downcast solo piano rendition of Bad Romance at Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday. Moukarbel relies less on set pieces than slices of life that cumulatively form a portrait of a tireless multi-platform artist at the edge of her 30s – no longer bound to the high concept creative aesthetic that marked her early career but coming to terms with the second decade of fame. (“I don’t have the need to have a million wigs on to make a statement.”) She wrestles with the notion of growing up Gaga, nodding to the theory of how stars developmentally remain at the age they were when they became famous. “I’m not afraid of getting pregnant and becoming older with my fans,” she says, believably. “I’m excited. I want to become an old rockstar lady.”

There are moments of vulnerability, if no overt acknowledgement of 2013’s ARTPOP disappointment, which hinted at a loss of her grip on the star-making apparatus that shot her to international fame nearly a decade ago. Mostly these focus on her personal rather than professional life, as Gaga casts the dissolution of her relationships as the collateral damage of her fame. “I’m alone, every night,” she says. “And all these people will leave, right? They will leave, and then I’ll be alone. And I go from everyone touching me all day and talking at me all day to total silence.”

The narrative thrust sharpens during a middle act that tracks the Joanne album cycle: playing early cuts of the album for a New York Times writer before embarking on a globetrotting press tour, where she fine-tunes and parrots soundbites addressing the genesis and meaning of Joanne, the stripped-down tribute to her father’s sister, who died of lupus before she was born. She contends with debilitating pain stemming from a hip injury that at one point leaves her supine and screaming into a pillow while receiving treatment, but her psychological injuries amid her extended breakup with her fiance Taylor Kinney are more compelling, if sparse: preparation for public appearances include handlers applying iced-down spoons as makeshift enswells to reduce swelling from backstage tears. At its best there are moments of deep sincerity that demonstrate how and why Gaga connects, placing Five Foot Two a class above the recent fleet of antiseptic authorized docs like Beyoncé’s Life Is But a Dream and Taylor Swift’s The 1989 World Tour.

The scenes, taken by themselves, lack singular impact, but together depict an artist in full command of her image and craft: the same drive and determination that powered her initial rise can be seen as she gives feedback in the studio or pores over videotapes of rehearsals to give herself notes. That’s never more apparent than in the final rehearsals for the Super Bowl extravaganza: “If I pick up the keytar and I play the wrong note in front of a hundred million people, that’s my fault,” she says. “It doesn’t matter that someone else screwed it up, that’s my name.”

But even these can feel like signposts and cliches. Like the triumphant show itself – which is never shown – the documentary is defiantly apolitical, with only the occasional sidelong allusion to the tumultuous moment in American life that was its backdrop.

The piece ends where it begins: a floor-up shot of Gaga in studded stilettos, Stefanie left behind in the dressing room, being raised to the rafters of Houston’s Reliant Stadium in preparation for the biggest gig of her career. A decade on, Gaga is still a New York City girl doing it with style and class and talent to burn, but Five Foot Two finds the mask still firmly in place, only in a far less fascinating way.

Contributor

Bryan Armen Graham

The GuardianTramp

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