There’s a scene in Gaga: Five Foot Two, the new Netflix documentary, where the woman born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta sits on a table, draped in a paper gown, crying. It’s the fall of 2016, and her new album, Joanne, is about to drop, having already leaked online in full. But the reasons for Gaga’s tears aren’t exhaustion or nerves. She’s in pain, and there is no room for pain in the whirlwind that is an album promotion cycle. Gaga has to keep moving.
Even for the most empathetic among us, there is nothing transferrable about pain. We try to pinpoint it, name it, trap it, and escape it, but none of that makes an individual’s physical suffering more accessible to others. In her new documentary, Lady Gaga tries over and over again to explain her pain. Tension, she says. Inflammation. We see her sob in the doctor’s office. We see needles thrust under her skin, joints manipulated against their will, cold spoons pressed against puffy eyes. But, ultimately, her distress feels remote because it is presented completely without context.
Almost anyone who follows Lady Gaga at all knows that she’s in pain. Just two weeks ago, she was forced to cancel the Brazil leg of her Joanne tour because of it. “In our documentary the #chronicillness #chronicpain I deal w/ is #Fibromyalgia I wish to help raise awareness & connect people who have it,” she tweeted on September 12.
In that one tweet, Gaga said more than the entire hundred-minute documentary does, and that is a problem. Nowhere in the movie does Gaga identify the source of her chronic pain the way she does in this tweet. We see her in pain, and we hear her say she’s in pain, but the film never discusses the injury that initially caused the pain (a broken hip in 2013). Pain is the subtext to the documentary’s core narrative, which would be fine if there were a core narrative to begin with.
Directed by Chris Moukarbel, Gaga: Five Foot Two opens with a shot from the singer’s 2017 Super Bowl performance in Houston. Gaga is elevating in a harness, floating toward the sky, growing smaller and smaller until she’s so far above us that she’s disappeared: a too apt metaphor for how distant the pop star feels in the film despite the director’s seemingly intimate access. The story then follows the publicity tour for the ballad-heavy Joanne. Most successful music documentaries — pop documentaries, in particular — center on the tour. Out on the road, the artists are pushed to the edge. Both Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never and One Direction’s This is Us follow megastars as they bring their music to their fans. Katy Perry’s Part of Me traced her 2011 tour and how it led to the disintegration of her relationship with Russell Brand. But Gaga: Five Foot Two isn’t quite sure what kind of documentary it wants to be.
“The thing with me and Madonna,” says Gaga in the film, “is that I admired her always and I still admire her, no matter what she might think of me.” As has been the case so often throughout Gaga’s career, the legacy of Madge looms large, and it’s impossible to watch the new film without thinking of her iconic 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare. It’s a comparison that does Gaga few favors: Where Truth or Dare presents Madonna as the tentpole for an absurdist circus of performers, Gaga’s position in her relationship to everyone around her remains hidden.
Fans of the singer know that the Lady Gaga of the Joanne press tour was a radical departure from the Lady Gaga that had commanded the spotlight for the previous six years. Here she was at her most personable, her most raw, her most real. There was no meat dress, no insane wigs, no performative persona. The press tour was meant to re-stake Gaga’s place as an artist more than as a celebrity, a person more than a pop star. Vulnerability was the whole theme of the album’s marketing campaign, which doesn’t leave a lot of new material for the movie.
“If I get depressed, my whole body can spasm,” says Gaga at one point in the documentary, but the filmmakers give no background as to why she might have been depressed. A dedicated Gaga-logist would recognize that it might have something to do with her relationship with actor Taylor Kinney. He’s mentioned early on, but by the Super Bowl–centered finale, he’s suddenly her “ex-fiancé.” Taylor, we hardly knew you!
This is the greatest failure of the documentary: It doesn’t know who it’s for. It offers nowhere near enough context to be a film for a casual fan. Allusions and names are dropped too quickly for anyone who doesn’t rigorously keep up with Gaga’s social media and TMZ headlines to track. Little things, like a confusing timeline, make the film feel messier than it needs to. And for the Little Monsters out there who do have enough deep knowledge to follow the story, there is little payoff. There are plenty of shots of Gaga rehearsing, or Gaga preaching about her personal growth. And there’s lots of Gaga crying, but not a lot of meat.
Maybe social media is to blame for this obliqueness: We feel we know Gaga so well, and she gives so much of herself already, that there’s nothing left to share. But it feels like a failure of imagination on the part of the filmmakers, an unwillingness to push beyond the narrative a massive pop star presents. Like its title, the film mistakes facts about Gaga’s existence for insight into her as a person. In a way, it feels more like an extended Instagram story — perfectly curated, concealed, and contextless — than a documentary. Without being placed in the present moment, it barely means anything at all.