Trying to stay in the limelight on the back of controversies and shock tactics may work in the short term, but this strategy doesn’t guarantee longevity for the career of an artist. It becomes progressively harder for the entertainer to capture the attention of an increasingly jaded audience, and the weaknesses of the performer’s material start to become more apparent as the novelty of their offbeat persona wears off.
That’s the problem Stefani Germanotta found herself running into. After taking the music world by storm under the provocative guise of Lady Gaga, the American pop star started losing traction with each new record, receiving lukewarm reviews, weaker sales, and waning attention for her latter releases. The best way forward, logic dictated, was an image overhaul, so it didn’t come as a surprise when the singer chose to strip away the eccentric Gaga façade and present a more intimate visage for her new album, Joanne (2016).
It’s this latest phase in her career that is the subject of Gaga: Five Foot Two, a Netflix documentary that captures a glimpse of the singer’s personal and professional life as she makes and promotes Joanne.
The film shows Germanotta recording in the studio, primarily with producer Mark Ronson, creating the songs that would end up on her fifth album. The emotional story of the titular Joanna – her father’s sister who died of lupus at the age of 19 – is relayed in a touching segment of the documentary. We also see the singer making the ‘Perfect Illusion’ music video, promoting the new record, performing at the Democratic National Convention and at a birthday celebration for Tony Bennett, and preparing for her Super Bowl half-time show which took place earlier this year. The documentary also highlights her acting successes; her stint on American Horror Story and her upcoming movie A Star is Born are both mentioned in the film (although you don’t find out anything substantial about the latter project).
Alongside her musical and acting endeavours, Five Foot Two also offers a peek into Germanotta’s personal life, from her bond with her family to her loneliness following the disintegration of her relationship with ex-fiancé Taylor Kinney. But the most affecting part of the documentary is her struggle with severe pain, which is mentioned several times in the film. Throughout the documentary, Gaga is shown suffering from chronic pain which often leaves her in tears, as she struggles with spasms or gets treatment for the disease which seems to have been undiagnosed when Five Foot Two was being made but was later revealed to be fibromyalgia.
The documentary appears to have two primary aims: to showcase Germanotta’s vocal prowess as she embarks on this stripped-down segment of her musical journey and to humanize the artist. And while it succeeds to a certain degree on both counts, it doesn’t completely triumph on either level. As an artist, hearing the singer record in the studio leaves you with little doubt that she has one of the strongest voices among her peers, plus her piano playing skills are consistently impressive, but the songs she records are a tad underwhelming and not exactly her finest creations. As a person, we get to see a more vulnerable side of the performer which makes her seem more personable, but we don’t really get to know a lot about the singer. The film doesn’t explore her early life or career. Plus, it’s hard not to wonder how real and raw the documentary really is, especially when comments or scenes start to seem a little staged.
All in all, though director Chris Moukarbel has done a competent job capturing his subject’s busy schedule, her seemingly chaotic life, and the severe pain that she has been dealing with for years. The film is also an interesting showcase of the current stage of Germanotta’s career, which itself seems like a move in the right direction – albeit executed in a lacklustre way – for her as an artist who finally wants the focus to be on her talent instead of her antics. The documentary is primarily for little monsters or viewers who have some knowledge about the singer’s life and work; those who know nothing about her might feel a little lost as not everything is clearly spelled out or explained. Ultimately, you won’t walk away with a comprehensive understanding of the woman at its centre as Five Foot Two doesn’t shed light on much of her life and work, nor does it delve too deep into her thoughts and choices, but it does give you a fascinating look at Germanotta’s Joanne era and a glimpse at the person behind the Gaga persona.