It goes without saying that the name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is a mouthful. It’s a lot to swallow and not particularly easy on the ears. But as happens to most artists born without fame-worthy names, it was condensed to the punchier, more digestible, more theatrical Lady Gaga. Gaga cited in a 2013 article in People magazine she needed to depart from being Stefani in order to perform and be an actual artist.
And that, in a sense, is the heart of “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” the 2017 documentary film centered around the production and release of her fifth album, “Joanne” and her halftime performance at the Super Bowl 51.
Shot and directed by Chris Moukarbel and produced, in part, by Lady Gaga herself, the film unveils the many facets of fame. But most poignantly, it narrates the never-ending embracing and concealing, performing and reinvention of oneself that celebrities experience on a day-to-day basis in order to make a name for themselves in the industry. The documentary shows Gaga coming to terms with that lifestyle, fighting it at times and, at others, giving into it.
Unsteady in its start—playing at the stereotypical “Hi MTV, welcome to my crib” trope with Gaga parading around her Malibu home, eating lunch and playing with her dogs, in a “I’m a normal, down-to-earth gal” way— “Gaga: Five Foot Two” catches traction during the rare moments when the camera is rolling and Stefani comes through—moments when Gaga allows Stefani to come through.
Take mid-way through the film—past the awkward moments where she monologues her fighting with Taylor, her growth into a more confident woman, face toward the camera, performing pain, performing heartbreak instead of living it—where we are offered a widely shot, stripped-down, white tee and black denim clad Gaga. She’s at her grandmother’s house and she’s playing her “Joanne” for the first time. A song which tells the tale of Gaga’s aunt who passed at just 19 from lupus.
She props her iPhone to her grandmother’s ear, warning her grandmother that “it’s just a rough cut” and she can stop playing it at any point if she needs. And in that moment, the camera is irrelevant and Gaga is far from sight. In this tiny apartment, her world is small and she doesn’t have to enlarge herself to fill a room or please a crowd, the only thing that matters is her family. The only thing she seeks is her grandmother’s love and approval. The only thing she is is Stefani.
Pair that with the contrastingly tight shot of Gaga sitting on the curb, outside the studio languidly smoking a cigarette, laughingly admitting to dressing and acting the way she did to fight the music industry’s need to control her, and we get two of her many faces; the take-no-bullshit, empowered Gaga and the more self-conscious, sentimental Stefani.
We get face. All throughout the documentary, Gaga gives us face. She’s on all the time, performing some version—either fabricated or real, fierce or timid—of herself, and Moukarbel’s steady hand is always there to capture the production.
If you can get over the emotional exhaustion of watching editor, Greg Arata’s cuts of juxtaposing shots of Gaga everyday—such as her writhing and crying out in pain in her NYC apartment due to her fibromyalgia one minute, then rushing to Tony Bennet’s birthday party to belt out a flawless stripped-down performance of “Bad Romance” the next—than you can witness in action a woman who altered herself just enough to get her foot in the door. But one that never let the world forget that she’s calling the shots and that she won’t let anything—not chronic pain, not expectations—keep her from getting to be some version of herself and do what she loves: perform. Be it as Gaga or Stefani.