Gaga: Five Foot Two
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Chris Moukarbel
Programme: Special Events (World Premiere)
A special event lit up the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 8 when Lady Gaga turned Festival Street into a red carpet runway and then transformed the VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre into a rock concert before the premiere of the documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. Gaga offered a soulful and spine-tingling rendition of “Bad Romance” played only with the accompaniment of a piano and while the overture to the feature presentation might have been stronger than the documentary that followed it, the screening of Gaga: Five Foot Two was arguably a highlight of this year’s festival. This unique event showed the power of a live collective experience with a documentary that was launched at the festival by—ironically—Netflix.
Lady Gaga is a born performer as both the film and the event note. She rocks the stage with outstanding vocals and puts on an amazing show regardless of the platform or show. Beyond the meat dress, garish outfits, and eccentric persona of the formative years of her career, however, is a private and reluctant celebrity who dodges paparazzi more often than she sings about them. Recent years show Gaga’s true self, Stefani Germanotta, breaking through the lady’s showy shell in a rebirth.
The intimate documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two takes audiences inside Germanotta’s home to give rare access and insight into the pop star’s mind. Director Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York) sticks to verité-style portraiture as he films Lady Gaga in her home and in the studios while she prepares for the release of her album Joanne and career-peak performance at the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show. The stripped back style of Gaga: Five Foot Two befits the subject since Gaga aims to reinvent herself with this album, which whittles her music down to the essentials of good lyrics and powerful vocals. Gaga opts to shed the poppy dance numbers along with her Susanne Bartsch -like looks, and the film invites a conversation about star persona and the challenges of reclaiming a unique identity when fans, audiences, and media try to preserve another image.
Moukarbel peels back the layers to show the woman who exists beneath the saturation of images in the media. Glimpses into Lady Gaga’s daily routine show everyday struggles like her experience with chronic pain following a hip injury in 2013. It’s a testament to her spirit and devotion to her art that she continues to perform despite this pain, since Five Foot Two shows Gaga undergoing frequent physiotherapy and treatment, sometimes while getting her make-up done, to remedy the constant throbs.
Gaga cries a lot in Five Foot Two — and I mean a lot — and her baggage is emotional as well as physical since the creation of her new album builds up a lot of sentimental weight that fuels her reinvention. Joanne gets its title track from the story of Gaga’s late aunt, who died at a very young age after losing both her hands to lupus. The touching ballad that Gaga pens for this relative resonates with the losses she experiences in her own life, including breakups, deaths, and the declining health of a friend and member of her company the Haus of Gaga.
Gaga: Five Foot Two gives a raw portrait of music’s ability to unleash pain as Lady Gaga creates some of her most passionate work with Joanne. But there is also a lot of laughter in Five Foot Two, as Moukarbel captures Gaga’s lively personality and larger than life spirit. Jokes about her rivalry with Madonna, for example, humanize the icon without downplaying her stature, while some down to earth moments with Lady Gaga’s family remind us that celebrities can also be completely normal people with everyday lives when we let them escape the spotlight. Watching Gaga: Five Foot Two with family and friends in the comfort of one’s own home, on the other hand, might provide a special event of its own even if one couldn’t see it at the festival with the Lady herself.