Five Foot Two: pop colossus Lady Gaga is captured shrinking to human-size
In Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga tries to control the message. But it’s clearly tough and lonely at the summit of the pop world
There is an extended montage in Chris Moukarbel’s film Five Foot Two (on Netflix from September 22nd) that shows Lady Gaga’s entrances and exits from buildings over the years in various states of pop pomp. One moment she is channelling Isabella Blow: all asymmetrical bob balancing on her McQueen stilts, chin jutting confidently skywards. The next she’s a dandelion caught in a cobweb, a bloodied Roman candle, a grown woman wearing a giant hash brown on her head. Finally, there is the tiniest Gaga of all, stripped of her avant-garde armour: dressed in a white T-shirt and cut-offs she trips into the street – just a regular girl.
There comes a time in the lives of every incandescent, mercurial pop icon when the public demands to see the wizard behind the curtain. They want their idols to be ground down to the humdrum of humanity. No longer other-worldly, celestial beings who seem to be made of stardust, the public demands the image of a gaunt-faced pleb popping out to get some milk. It’s as if this boring “relatable” mode (to reduce a star to the familiar) is deemed preferable to the fizzing, monstrous egos of pop where subsisting on a diet of all white foodstuffs is acceptable and having a monkey as a confidant is standard.
Lady Gaga was the last true gatekeeper of this glorious pageantry of excess and eccentricity. She was heroic in her mission to stand apart and make herself memorable in a chart landscape stuffed with nylon hair-extensions, spindle heels and homogenous faces.
Her magpie spirit cherry-picked the best of the absurd and the unconventional: thieving Warhol’s philosophy, Bowie’s mysteriousness, New York’s drag aesthetic, John Waters’ trash and Madonna’s forcefulness. She stitched all this on to her reptilian skin and made it her flesh, and gave the derivative pop-world something worth talking about. Five Foot Two documents how after 10 years of vibrancy this Frankenstein’s Pop Monster began to malfunction and needed rebuilding.
Those expecting a scathing, merciless depiction of fame in all its decrepit glory, a-la In Bed with Madonna, will be disappointed. The documentary is low on bitchy laughs or gossip (other than a few drunken words about her Madgesty, which are lacking in real vitriol). It’s a well-thought-out interior monologue that Gaga Gaga attempts to control, by reining in the chaos with conformity. The film bridges a yellow-brick road between Beyonce’s sanitised snooze-fest Life is But a Dream and David Bowie’s drug-fuelled dissolution captured in Cracked Actor.
This is not the Gaga who would gleefully pee through her fishnets or drink away an afternoon in an old-man’s pub dressed in full bondage attire (one can only imagine what that documentary would have been like). This instead is the Gaga of the Joanne album, the Quorn sausage to the madness of her meat-dress incarnation.
Joanne was supposed to be the moment in her career where the public took Gaga seriously. After the over-reaching extremes of the Artpop album, and the mixed reviews that came with it, the singer decided to scale back and second guess her audience, some of whom had slipped over to the flaccid boys-with-acoustic-guitars side of the charts. She gave them a singer-songwriter album without a shred of the camp knowingness or arch ostentation that she is famous for.
Unhooking her bikini top poolside while chatting to her stylists she physically performs the ritual of exposing herself. Stating that she wants a “uniform” look for the album “just black T-shirts and boots”. It’s as if she is attempting to scratch away at Lady Gaga until she reaches the year zero of Stefani Germanotta and can reset herself. Throughout the documentary the emphasis is entirely on the personal: this decision to throw her true self at the mercy of the world weighs heavy on the singer.
There are moments here where the mask slips and Gaga is caught off-guard. Having split from her lantern-jawed actor boyfriend Taylor Kinney just before the making of the Joanne album, Gaga is at her most vulnerable, professionally and personally. She bemoans having to prove herself constantly as a female artist and resents how her success intimidates and ultimately drives men away from her. The loneliness that echoes around her Sunset Boulevard-style mansion is palpable.
“This is me with nothing,” she cries after the general opinion of her comeback single Perfect Illusion has been less than kind, then in the same breath, she defiantly promises that she’ll fight to win over her audience with the album because it’s “loveable”. This rejection of the “real girl” Gaga truly stings.
The emotional pain is bound up with the intense physical pain she is shown in, dealing with spasms from her fibromyalgia caused by her famous hip injury. There is a lot of prescription drug pounding throughout the film with a glassy-eyed Gaga at one point unleashing a lengthy list of medication that would’ve made a juvenile Drew Barrymore blush. Lying on a hospital trolley having her makeup reapplied, while blood is drawn from various parts of her body, she discovers that the full Joanne album has been leaked online. “My album is hemorrhaging everywhere” she deadpans, looking straight down the camera lens in full tragic-diva mode.
Five Foot Two is the moment an icon of statuesque proportions is captured shrinking to human-size. A glimpse at a savvy self-assured star stuck in a confusing moment of powerlessness. It is ironic that the event that brings artsy outsider Gaga back from this blip is the conventional conservatism of the Superbowl and its razzle-dazzle Halftime Show.
It is there, condensing her career into a head-spinning few minutes, that she re-engages with this character she birthed: the Gaga of the ludicrous keytar, the sequin encrusted leotards, the rockets-launching from her undercarriage, the fearless woman aflame with the desire to deliver pop at its most pleasurable.
As she tells herself to enjoy the moment and unfurls a sly smile, it’s a reminder that there is a comfort in the art of the artifice, a release that the authenticity of reality just cannot compete with.