There are times I think I know more about the Kardashian brood than I do my good friends. And I don’t even like the Kardashians. I don’t watch their shows, listen to their…um, music(?)…I honestly have no idea what they do. Yet I know two of them are possibly pregnant as I write this and I don’t know at what point that tidbit entered my brain and lodged there. Of the many changes social media has foisted on our society one of the most damaging has been blurring – and at times obliterating – the line between celebrity and their fans. It could be argued this has humanized celebrities in giving the notion that they are “just like us”. But they are not like us and at a certain level of fame they live a life so far removed from the average American they might as well be from another planet. And yet this level of fame, for all of its comforts and amenities, comes at a price.
Filmed over the course of 2016 by documentary filmmaker Mark Mourkarbel the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two is a cinema vérité look into Lady Gaga’s life, providing an unfiltered look at her day to (at times) extraordinary day. The movie is a chronological journey from the recording of her newest album, Joanne, the ensuing press tour, culminating in her performance at the Super Bowl half time show in 2017. The single camera fly-on-the-wall approach lends an intimacy to the footage revealing the woman behind the super star image, Stefani Germanotta.
There is scant background given on Gaga’s entourage – the managers, assistants, designers, and stylists officially called The Haus of Gaga – that attend to her and seem to accompany her just about everywhere she goes. It may seem extravagant but the necessity of them becomes clear when later we see paparazzi gathering outside of her studio and the gauntlet that Gaga has to go through to do something as simple as leave work and go home. While some of the people outside are fans and want photos and a moment with “Mother Monster”, the paparazzi cameras are constantly going off and its obvious several others are simply autograph hounds looking to keep their eBay pipeline filled with autographed merchandise for sale. Her demeanor when dealing with those people changes immediately from one of accommodation and warmth to simply doing a job and avoiding the hassle.
For those that haven’t see it this video showing George Lucas confronted by autograph seekers in LA this past summer drives the point home perfectly:
After that sequence there is a montage showing Lady Gaga interacting with fans and the paparazzi that is mind numbing to watch. Mourkarbel uses a montage edit a few times in the movie to show just how overwhelming simply being a celebrity can be as everyone at all times seems to want your time and energy. He piles on edit after edit after edit showing her answering the same questions over and over, going on radio shows and junkets, and constantly working and going all the time. It has to be exhausting and it’s honestly no wonder some celebrities cannot handle the pressure fame brings to them and turn to drugs to alleviate the stress.
During the movie Gaga opens up about her struggle with chronic pain from Fibromyalgia and we see her at times in terrible pain being attended to by doctors and massage therapists. Later when she is so wracked with pain and in tears, Gaga wonders incredulously how an average person could possibly deal with the pain and is thankful that she has the resources to help manage her health struggles. We see her visit with her grandmother to go through some family heirlooms from her Aunt Joanne, the namesake for Gaga’s new album. She talks about being 30 and wanting to be treated as a woman, no longer as a girl. She talks about the inherent sexism in the music industry yet is comfortable disrobing in a room full of strangers to get in to costume. It is in these raw and unfiltered moments where we see Gaga just being herself that are the most memorable, when she is Stefani Germanotta and seems the most relaxed.
Then there are times where she’s simply part of the machine that is Lady Gaga. It’s not enough to be a great songwriter, musician, and singer. The persona of Lady Gaga is a beast that at times seems to be more than Gaga herself can control. She muses about how she wants to get away from the outlandish costumes and stunts. That as much as she likes standing in front of a wind machine in an outrageous outfit she doesn’t want to be known for that only. It’s a good point to make but I have to wonder if she can ever escape the fame monster she created. Later in the movie we see Gaga make an impromptu appearance at a New York Walmart, talking to the staff, greeting fans that show up, and finally leaving after purchasing copies of Joanne and some snacks for the road.
This scene is immediately followed by one on her private jet as she and her team are flying back to California, eagerly checking the social media impact that the visit has had and revealing that it was really a guerrilla marketing stunt. It would be easy to frame the question this raises as, who is the real Lady Gaga? The woman we see wracked with pain and visiting with family or the artist and superstar that calculates her every move? But the answer is she is both. Lady Gaga is a job and a person. Lady Gaga is not Stefani Germanotta’s alter-ego, they are not separate. If anything Gaga is a corporation and Germanotta is the CEO of that corporation. No one is ever one thing no matter how reductive they can seem. And what we see in Gaga: Five Foot Two is that the only thing that changes the richer and more famous you get is how much deeper that divide between private and public becomes.