Approaching a female artist’s pain with no intent to romanticise the subject, Lady Gaga’s documentary feels like a new kind of self-portrait created for both the star and her fans.
The 2010s have shown that the musician’s documentary is a complex form of storytelling. It’s clear from the most prominent of those visual biographies that there are, for viewers who stick to the most popular, advertised and/or acclaimed films, there are only two routes to go down. Lady Gaga’s documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, takes a new route.
As emphasised by Brett Morgen’s consciously creative artistic examination of Kurt Cobain’s career in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, or the equally thoughtful Academy Award-winning Amy directed by Asif Kapadia, one route is that of exploring the artist’s life post-death.
In credit to both Montage of Heck and Amy, neither of the documentaries have a particular hyper-interest in their stars’ ‘tragic’ (a word that has taken a new life thanks to the press) deaths. Instead, the films are concerned with what they accomplished, thought, and created whilst alive. For Cobain and Amy Winehouse, however, death – be it through lyrics, cult celebrity fame, or the public’s morbid interest – became intrinsic to their work the moment they joined the 27 Club.
Movies like 2012’s Katy Perry: Part of Me and Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never arrived so early on in each of the American megastars’ careers that, with the help of the latter, the Commercialised Pop Star with a Message has reached the point of parody.
For Morgen and Kapadia, the kind of debilitating mental pain their artists went through means it’s unavoidable to talk about when we still live with the ‘tortured artist’ trope. Meanwhile both Bieber and Perry’s movies take a much more structured approach, with the former counting down to the teen’s biggest show and the latter interjected with clips from a series of interviews. It’s a clear attempt at organising the chaos of fame, with the more concerning sides of celebrity (lack of privacy, mental and physical intrusion) briefly brushed upon.
With Gaga’s Five Foot Two, the artist foregoes the commercial tropes that lay before her to create an intimate documentary that feels like a personal portrait of the artist. Viewers are allowed close enough to feel as though they experience moments with her. However, there’s enough distance to observe Gaga as she becomes vulnerable for the screen. As our Natalie Mokry has explored, the film show’s us the human side to Gaga. As Mokry points out, “Something that assists the documentary in its goal to portray the regular person that Gaga is, is through showing us her natural reactions to situations.” Even in Gaga’s everyday life, her illness seeps in.
Yet Gaga always perseveres, and, with Amy‘s success and the release of Sophie Fiennes’ documentary on legendary singer and icon Grace Jones, it’s clear we’re moving away from films about women singers and/or superstars acting as “gallant tributes to tragically doomed fragility,” as Peter Bradshaw asserts in his review of Fiennes’ film.
While there’s certainly faults within Five Foot Two – the film’s structure is certainly questionable, with the only clear narrative framing device being Gaga’s Superbowl Half Time show – the film is commendable in that it shows a woman’s pain without attempting to create a connection between Gaga’s artistry and her injuries or illnesses.
Directed by Chris Moukarbel, the film does not intend to separate the art from the artist. There’s no tortured artist trope at play, but it’s also clear from Gaga’s passion that her songs, music videos, promotional pictures, come from nowhere else but within. Viewers witness a woman who works hard but deals with debilitating injuries, who also just so happens to have millions of fans watching the exterior edges of her life.
Moukarbel’s film, then, is a door into the singer’s inner life. It’s always been clear that Gaga’s most obscure personas and outfits, such as the meat dress or the Grammy’s egg entrance, have been criticisms on the absurdity of fame. This Gaga – the woman who takes what is expected of her and exaggerates it tenfold – seems unable to feel pain, despite dancing in ten-inch heels and wearing protruding alien-like shapes on top of her shoulders.
As most of her fans know, Gaga broke her hip on the 2012-2013 Born This Way Ball world tour, and it’s this injury that the singer often sites as what she believes to be the cause of her chronic disorder Fibromyalgia (that makes you feel pain all over your body).
Viewers see the extent of Fibromyalgia from the beginning of Five Foot Two. Gaga, in her home, goes upstairs to her physical therapist. She talks about how her body spasms when she’s depressed, how she can’t move when the disorder is in its worst stages.
This domestic setting is unable to emphasise Gaga’s sheer anxiety that stems out of her pain, but as the film goes on the stakes get higher: after performing at a Hillary Clinton rally before the world imploded, the first thing Gaga talks about is her hip; she lies in hotel rooms unable to move as fans wait outside; and, in one of the most bizarre sequences of the film, doctors poke and prod her while makeup artists prepare her for an appearance. Here, both the clinical setting and the decorations of fame are equally sterile.
Despite the different settings in which the disorder affects Gaga, one thing’s clear: it’s not adding to her art, but acting as a hindrance to it. Five Foot Two shows a woman’s pain without any added commentary other than the subjects’ own.
Moukarbel and editor Greg Arata opt to begin the film with a shot of Gaga, her back to the camera, flying into the air in a rehearsal for her Superbowl show. Here, the image is a representation of the elevation fame brings. Yet near the film’s end the image reappears, and with it new meaning. Having followed Gaga’s journey to the Superbowl – which Gaga herself sees as a celebration of her career – viewers understand the pain the singer’s gone through. On stage — even in rehearsal — she once again appears invincible, but this time we know she is not.
It’s apt that Gaga’s documentary deals so much with pain when the very album it documents is so tied to that same subject matter. We learn the eponymous star of Gaga’s fifth studio album, Joanne, is the singer’s Aunt, with the lyrics of album pulling on Joanne’s life. And with the album’s main subject suffering from lupus, which caused her early passing, Gaga’s connection with her aunt goes deeper than their shared names (“Joanne” is Gaga’s middle name).
In a scene where Gaga is working on the album, she says that music is like “open heart surgery,” and that you have to enter a broken place. Unlike Gaga’s Fibromyalgia or Joanne’s lupus, this broken place is mental rather than physical. The saying is detached from the word “pain” since it describes something that has either already happened or been fixed. The fact Gaga relates her artistic process in these medical terms, however, shows not only the extent to which her physical illness has hindered her art, but that the artist is finally taking control of it.