The phrase rock star, as we know it, means a couple of things. It means rock star. And it also means someone who’s the celebrated badass master of his or her domain — he’s the rock star of tax attorneys, she’s the rock star of personal trainers, he’s the rock star of plumbers. By that measure, I would have to call Lady Gaga the rock star of rock stars. She may not be at the dizzying commercial apex she was when she revolutionized the music business with her rhapsodic dance pop (at this moment, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift seem a little higher in the heavens). But in her fusion of sex, fashion, grooves, moves, aura, outrage, and — how can I put this? — sheer awesome electric ecstasy, she’s still on the edge of glory, on a towering peak all her own.
At the Toronto Film Festival, right before the premiere of Gaga: Five Foot Two, a brisk and infectious verité portrait of the singer onstage and (mostly) off, Gaga sat down at the piano to perform a slowed-down, unplugged solo rendition of “Bad Romance,” and it was stunning. Her voice had a power that didn’t just give you chills, it healed you. Gaga sings that same solo number in the film, during a cabaret performance at the Rainbow Room in New York City, and you can see the majesty of it sweep through the nightclub audience. The first shot in “Five Foot Two” is of the bottom of Gaga’s high-heeled shoe, as she’s hoisted up on a pulley during a rehearsal for the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show, and that feels right. After 10 years, she’s still the high-wire queen of pop.
Gaga: Five Foot Two, a Netflix documentary that will be available globally on Sept. 22, doesn’t have a lot of musical numbers, and personally I wish it had more. If anyone is ripe to make a backstage concert film that conjures the blend of excitement and intimacy that we remember, 25 years ago, from Truth or Dare, it’s Lady Gaga. But Five Foot Two is all about Gaga growing up, taking a decisive turn — almost an off-ramp — in her pop journey, exploring a new direction as she tries, at the age of 30, to calm herself in the thrashing waters of fame.
Directed by Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York), who also filmed it, it’s an inside-the-bubble-of-fame movie — which is to say, if you’re going to watch Five Foot Two and enjoy it, you have to give in to the fact that it features a virtuoso diva, who seems to have gotten more or less everything she ever dreamed of, being candid and open about the woes of her love life, the perils and pressures of celebrity, and the interior sadness that she, like any of us, can carry around.
In each case, I believed her, yet when you’re this rich and famous and talented and blessed and adored, any complaining — and Gaga is not shy when it comes to discussing the things she isn’t happy about — can, if viewed from a certain angle, come off as a glorified case of white people problems. When Gaga, in the film, talks about how lonely she feels, and about how each new romantic partnership seems to dissolve just as she’s taking on a new project, I thought: Well, yes, love is painful, and life can be lonely — but compared to the rest of us, there are probably one or two people out there who would still like to date you.
Yet the confessional griping never comes off as sour grapes. In Five Foot Two, Gaga radiates a potent energy — she’s intensely funny and aware, and so unabashedly focused on herself that, like Madonna back in the day, that’s simply who she is and who we want her to be. (Sorry, but you don’t get to be the queen of pop by focusing too much on others.) Speaking of Madonna, Gaga disses her in the movie in a not-quite-scandalous way, though it’s really payback for negative comments Madonna made about her — and in this case, I side with Gaga. Madonna came off as jealous, when she should have celebrated the fact that Lady Gaga, in the world-shaking audacity of her initial explosion, was Madonna’s musical and spiritual heir, not to mention her 21st-century protégé in Warholian image manipulation.
In those first few years, beginning with the release of The Fame in August 2008, Gaga, it’s almost hard to remember, was a figure of mystery. All those masks! All those head-spinning videos that fused glitz and mutilation but would still barely let you see what the singer looked like beyond her doe eyes and Roman nose. All that postmodern put-on during the early interviews.
But in Five Foot Two Gaga is fully and casually exposed, and what we see is a playful but vibrantly intense woman in big glasses and tied-back platinum-blonde hair who’s exceedingly comfortable with her family (her dad isn’t some distant looming figure — he’s just dad, hanging around and supportive), who reveres the creative process and knows how to treat herself. She’s got a couple of nice big dogs, and her Malibu mansion is so tasteful and inviting it looks like the home Jennifer Lawrence is renovating in “mother!” if she’d ever been able to finish it.
In a Hollywood studio, where Gaga records the soulful, stripped-down ballad “Million Reasons,” she has a taunting camaraderie with Mark Ronson, the British DJ and producer we see collaborating with her on the recording of “Joanne,” her first break-with-dance-pop album. (Tellingly, the one big dance track on it, “Perfect Illusion,” was her first blah single, with a grating hook that lodges itself in your head until you realize that — yes — the hook comes right out of “Papa Don’t Preach.”)
When Truth or Dare came out, it was before the age of reality TV, and everyone in the media did metaphysical backflips trying to pin down what it meant when Madonna gave us a “spontaneous,” “unguarded,” “raw and uncut,” “backstage” view of herself that was actually guided by the star — and even if it wasn’t, the real calculation was that Madonna, in the very DNA of her personality, was always “performing” anyway. That was how she was wired. (Warren Beatty in the movie: “She doesn’t want to live off camera.”) In hindsight, all that strikes me as one part true, two parts convoluted sexism. As if Bob Dylan, the inventor of too cool for school, didn’t orchestrate his image every bit as much in Don’t Look Back.
Five Foot Two is certainly a documentary-as-controlled-exposure-as-press-release, but just because Lady Gaga is the rock star of rock stars doesn’t mean that her candor isn’t “real.” When she sits by the pool, topless, you could call that a publicity gambit or simply what she likes to do. (It’s probably both.) I found the film intensely revealing of Gaga’s life and personality, especially when she’s getting treatments to deal with the pain that’s dogged her for three years, ever since she suffered a broken hip (misdiagnosed at the time) on tour. As her body gets worked over by a massage therapist, she talks about a rope of agony extending through her, right up to her head, and the way she describes it we can feel how that rope connects physical to mental pain (which can happen when an injury debilitates you).
As a director, Chris Moukarbel knows how to mix things up. He takes us from a meltdown Gaga has on the set of American Horror Story to a close encounter with fans to an outdoor performance for the Democratic National Committee to a family christening to Gaga accidentally smashing Mark Ronson’s car in the parking lot to a recording session with Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine to a planning session with Gaga’s fashion consultants (“We’ve seen me fuckin’ glamorous for 10 years — it’s boring!”) to her preparation for her Super Bowl halftime show, an event that she regards with a touching degree of awe.
At one point she says that she welcomes the passage of time, that she’s only too happy to think of herself turning into “this old rock-star lady.” A comment like that is the sound of sanity. But now that she has made a movie that exposes herself, she should really do a concert film, a meticulously orchestrated one that, like Stop Making Sense, could bring the form to a new pitch of creative excitement. Five Foot Two shows you Lady Gaga evolving — but more than that it shows you that she’s only just getting started. That’s what happens when you’re born this way.