Gaga: Five Foot Two review
A couple of nights ago I made a mammoth bowl of pesto pasta, and ate it in my pyjamas in bed with my laptop balanced on my stomach. Obviously no pasta-pyjama binge is complete without a side-helping of Netflix, so I turned on the Bad Batch. SPOILER ALERT: it was a no from me the minute Suki Waterhouse has her arm and leg unceremoniously lopped off. After pootling around on Netflix for a bit longer I finally alighted on new Lady Gaga documentary Five Foot Two. I decided it would be fine for at least as long as it would take me to eat my pasta (read: 2 minutes or less). 100 minutes later I was a sobbing mess.
Five Foot Two is a picture of a woman of intense strength, and incredible integrity. It’s also the picture of a woman in consistent global pain. As such it’s a far cry from the average music industry marketing tool. There are no talking heads, no testimonials from friends and family. There are no interviews with Mark Ronson about her inimitable talent, no videos of her singing lead in the school play.
Instead of regurgitated footage of long performance sequences and kindly interactions with adoring fans, there are excruciating shots of Gaga aka Stephani Germanotta screaming into a pillow while she undergoes physiotherapy on her broken hip, and brought to tears by full-body pain due to then-undiagnosed fibromyalgia. We see her undergo a lengthy period of medical investigation all while preparing for her forthcoming Super Bowl Half Time show.
We live in an age that claims to celebrate the grossest of zeitgeisty buzzwords: authenticity. Celebrities share moments, write open letters, take part in reality TV. They’re not afraid to show us their humanity, or at least a version of it sanctioned by their publicists. I don’t think we’re under any illusion at this point that celebrities aren't real people with feelings, who cry when they get dumped, and have to visit the hospital every now and again to deal with various betrayals of their fragile, mortal bodies.
Even the representation of personal adversity in the face of crushing obligation to thousands of baying fans is not altogether new. Katy Perry’s Piece of Me, released in 2012 at the height of her ‘California Girls’ era popularity, was at times an incredibly candid document of the rise of her pop career, and the fall of her marriage to Russell Brand. One extraordinary scene in which an exhausted, sobbing Perry drags herself out of her makeup chair, stumbles bent-double to her mark, and forces a rictus smile seconds before a hydraulic platform catapults her on stage literally haunts me to this day. It’s not, perhaps, inherently revolutionary for a celebrity to show their makeup-less face, or discuss the tribulations of a break-up (though it is important when they do). But it is revolutionary for Germanotta.
She is an artist whose career has hitherto rested on manifold reconstructions of self, each more otherworldly than the last. Unlike Madonna or David Bowie, Germanotta’s career cannot, until now, be divided into phases or eras. There is only, really, pre and post Joanne, her fourth solo album released in 2016. There is the Lady Gaga of the outlandish outfits, and the mini-shorted, t-shirted Lady Gaga of now. Five Foot Two makes it clear that this is not her Thin White Duke phase, her human skin is not just another costume. In eschewing the absurdist Haus of Gaga mode of self-presentation, Germanotta undergoes the process of unmasking herself.
Underneath the mask is a woman whose confidence in her own vocal strength has grown to the point that she no longer feels she needs the safety blanket of high-concept costumes (though, as she reminds us in the film, she still loves couture). She’s also a woman whose luck with men has negatively correlated with her personal success, stripping her of her tolerance for 'bullshit.' But most poignantly, she is also dealing with a disjoint between the way she feels about herself as a person now she's hit thirty - sexier, more talented, more sure of herself - and the way she literally feels in her body, which goes into spasm whenever she gets stressed, and with which she battles every time she has to get up and perform.
Of all the revelations in Five Foot Two, it’s the latter, I think, that will matter the most to the most people. Fibromyalgia is an illness whose legitimacy has been questioned time and time again by those even in the medical profession, and for many people the recognition of the illness in a public sphere is going to be incredibly important. When, in the throes of a full-body cramp, she asks ‘do I look pathetic?’ I just want to reach through my screen, grab her hand, and tell her ’you look powerful.’
It's tough to make an authorised documentary seem like anything other than a marketing exercise, and it's true that Five Foot Two is so in step with the aesthetic of Joanne that it could easily be written off as extended album promotion. That temptation, though fair, should be resisted. Germanotta has spent a career exploring her selfhood and her womanhood, and now, at thirty, she’s no longer concealing her face behind a veil, no longer masking her voice with pop synth, and no longer hiding her illness. She is better connected with herself, and in sharing so much of herself in this documentary she connects with a great many people who will feel stronger for seeing her vulnerability. She might have changed a lot over the past ten years, but Five Foot Ten is utterly Gaga.
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