Film, News & Commentary, Screen

Lady Gaga tries to dissect the fame monster in Netflix documentary

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Lady Gaga has put her meat dress in the deep freeze and started a new chapter of stardom: one that’s “stripped back” and focused on her music and story. The artist who became an international sensation by combining pop music with a wildly adventurous sense of fashion, and imagery plucked from performance artists, has changed direction.

Or that’s what her new documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, streaming now on Netflix, wants to convey to its audience. The film, directed by Chris Moukarbel, takes an intimate look at the pop-star as she records her fifth album, the folk and country-inspired Joanne, and rehearses for her Superbowl 2017 halftime show.

That 13-minute performance was watched live on TV by 117.5 million people, and with the addition of digital and social media viewers, is apparently the most-watched musical event of all time. Talk about pressure.

Any portrait of a public figure with that level of attention exploring how a person manages their life and fame is inevitably fascinating. Hers is a life that many dream of but few could imagine.

“Even this apparently raw and exposing film has been crafted to tell Gaga’s new personal narratives.”

Five Foot Two has clear echoes of Madonna’s 1991 documentary Truth or Darewhich followed the superstar on her landmark Blonde Ambition Tour.

Ironically, Gaga also uses this film to address comparisons that have been made between Madonna’s career and her own, particularly regarding the similarities between Gaga’s 2011 song Born This Way and Madonna’s 1989 song Express Yourself.

Gaga implies that she’d actually intended to pay tribute to Madonna — although that seems to be a somewhat revisionist view of pop music history — and wished Madonna had confronted her, rather than telling the media she was “reductive“.

But what’s more fascinating than this diva feud is the endless contradictions that seem to be at the core of Gaga’s persona and fame, and the logical corners she backs herself into while evolving that persona. Given that Gaga serves as a producer on this film — although gave full creative control to the director — part of the appeal in watching it is analysing how even this apparently raw and exposing film has been crafted to tell Gaga’s new personal narratives.

“She used to treat the world as a runway and the paparazzi as her own personal fashion photographers, but now she’s happy to be seen in her natural state.”

In a 2009 interview, in response to a suggestion that she might wear a baggy sweater to throw of paparazzi, Gaga said: “That’s a very dangerous precedent, and it’s not fair to my fans. They don’t want to see me that way just like I don’t want to see Bowie in a tracksuit. He never let anyone see him that way. The outlet for my work is not just the music and the videos, it’s every breathing moment of my life. I’m always saying something about art and music and fame. That’s why you don’t ever catch me in sweatpants.”

In the eight years since then, Gaga has let go of that need to control every aspect of her public image, and discovered the power of simplicity. She’s deliberately turned away from the more stage-managed aspects of her life in an attempt to find a new connection with her fans.

In Five Foot Two, we see her waltzing into a Walmart to buy her own album in just a t-shirt and shorts. She used to treat the world as a runway and the paparazzi as her own personal fashion photographers, but now she’s happy to be seen in her natural state.

But is that really an organic evolution?

We still see her in one scene having a meeting with a creative director and stylist — while topless by a pool — where she decides what her “uniform” will be for the next era of her career. She’ll wear simple black t-shirts and denim shorts to achieve an apparently effortlessly cool and relaxed style. But she’s not exactly going to just fish out whatever old black t-shirt is lying at the back of her closet; instead her stylist is sent out to buy a variety of outfits that fit this brief.

Gaga is hardly the first pop diva to decide, after bursting onto the scene with a highly stylised and provocative image, to strip things back and place the focus on a more organic style of music. It’s a move straight out of the pop playbook, and has been embraced by Madonna, Kylie Minogue, with Miley Cyrus about to do the same.

In that sense, there’s little genuinely unique about this new era of Gaga. What’s more revealing in the documentary is her battle with chronic pain — which recently forced her to postpone her world tour — and how she drew inspiration from her family and the story of her late aunt to create her new album. She knows how to understand and contextualise these things, even if she remains unable to consistently define her relationship with her fans or the world as a whole.

Five Foot Two is an entertaining and humanising documentary for this artist who started her career with a kind of alien appeal. But it’s also a carefully calculated film, with a calculated performance at its core. How much genuine revelation can you really expect from a self-produced biographical documentary?

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