Decked out in all pink (cowboy hat included), Stefani Germanotta—better known by her stage name Lady Gaga—is back. With five albums under her belt, the pop icon has plenty to say and is eager to share in the new Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two.” An in-depth look at the performer’s trials and tribulations over the past year, the film presents a Gaga adjusting to new challenges and substituting drama for authenticity.
Stripping away the spectacle, the documentary offers viewers a strikingly candid glimpse of Gaga out of the limelight. It does not shy away from difficult moments, chronicling scenes of the performer battling deep pains: fibromyalgia, heartbreak, and her friend’s illness, to name a few. Gaga’s own commentary takes on a confessional tone. She sits on a curb, hair undone, and reflects on criticism and the music industry with unexpected honesty. A far cry from the mysterious, egg-palanquin enigma of the early 2010s, this unfiltered, ripped-shorts performer is nonetheless refreshing and acutely engaging.
The film succeeds also in providing fans an intimate look at her values. When Gaga posits that “[her] family is the most important thing in [her] life,” she means it: Clips of her at a christening and her grandmother’s home reveal her tethering points amid all of the turmoil. And this new Gaga, several years removed from her last album, has cultivated valuable introspection. She says that the unpredictable “old-Gaga” came from a need to “put some absurd spin on [her art] that made [her] feel like [she] was still in control.” This re-characterizes Gaga not as a wild card, but instead as a woman cognizant of the power structures around her and deeply intentional in her responses to them.
And yet, for all the piece does to rough up her veneer, there exists some disconnect between the Gaga she sees and presents. At one point, she previews her song “Joanne,” a heartbreaking tribute to her late aunt. This is a clear emotional high point of the documentary and deeply personal for the Germanotta family, but there is something discomfiting about the scene: For viewers so accustomed to Gaga’s performance art, observing this emotional vulnerability feels uncomfortably voyeuristic. This transition to sentimentality has been particularly difficult for her old fans, with whom the performer says she has trouble connecting.
Indeed, there are moments when the documentary becomes quite heavy-handed. During one late night photoshoot, Gaga reminisces on the state of her work-life balance, confessing that “I go from everyone touching me all day and talking at me all day to total silence” as she wades into in a dark, empty pool. The opening and closing scenes of the film lack subtlety. Preparing for her 2017 Super Bowl performance, a primed Gaga is slowly lifted into the air in a harness, to a hymn-like orchestration of “Kaval Sviri.” As artistically beautiful as they can be, these scenes muddy the water and raise the question of whether or not the old, theatrical Gaga is truly gone.
For anyone confused at how the same artist who performed “Paparazzi” at the 2009 VMAs could release a single like “Million Reasons,” “Five Foot Two” is the documentary to watch. Gaga is unapologetic. And although it is unclear whether she will manage to reconcile her early dramatics with this new, stripped-down persona, one can’t help but root for the larger-than-life performer in the pink cowboy hat.