MEDITATIONS ON LADY GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO
Stars—they’re just like us! Behind-the-scenes documentaries about pop stars are my ALL TIME FAVORITE GENRE, along with dramas about unhinged ballerinas and anything with the words “Fast” and “Furious” in the title. Heaven is watching an international pop icon in sweatpants sitting on the floor eating Flaming Hot Cheetos with her backup dancers. From Truth or Dare, to Katy Perry: Part of Me, to Britney & Kevin: Chaotic, I’ve seen them all, so obviously I am all over the new Lady Gaga documentary, Five Foot Two.
One thing I love about pop star documentaries is the inside look at how much it takes—insanely hard work, dedication, laser focus, willingness to sacrifice privacy and personal relationships, and strong feelings about the satin lining of your jacket—to become and stay a superstar. Lady Gaga has always been the somewhat pretentious art school kid among the other pop stars of the aughts and twenty-teens. Early in her career when labels and producers tried to push her into having a sexy pop image, she pushed back by making an artistic or provocative statement using costuming and art direction: "If I'm gonna be sexy at the VMAs singing about the paparazzi I'm gonna do it while bleeding to death and reminding you of what fame did to Marilyn Monroe." Throughout the doc, her perfectionism is obvious, such as a moment when she stresses about a costume being not quite right, potentially throwing off her timing during a quick change when she has to strap on a keytar and hit the right note at the exact right moment. In this moment, Lady Gaga is every theater geek I’ve ever known who gets overly dramatic about hitting her mark perfectly during the big tap number in Anything Goes or sobbed her eyes out in the girls bathroom because she didn’t get the part of Ado Annie in Oklahoma. And this is what I really like about her—her obvious passion and dedication to her art.
When recording and touring for her most recent album, Joanne, Gaga presents a stripped-down version of herself, foregoing the headline-grabbing meat dresses and haute couture she became famous for. In one scene, she voices concerns to her assistants, wondering if her longtime fans will be disappointed to see her in tied t-shirts and cut-off jean shorts instead of high fashion. Her team replies by fawning over her ideas and new direction while simultaneously powdering her buttcheeks for a video shoot. You get the feeling that no one says no to Lady Gaga, and that it’s a lonely place, to be surrounded by ‘yes’ people. At one point, she says “I go from everyone touching me all day and talking at me all day to total silence.”
During the filming of the documentary, she is coping with the end of her engagement to Taylor Kinney, and she sees a correlation between her career’s biggest successes and the end of her various long-term relationships, lamenting “I can’t help but realize that when I sold 10 million records I lost Matt. I sold 30 million and lost Luc. I did a movie and lose Taylor. It’s like a turnover.” During this moment, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Part of Me when Katy Perry is sobbing over the end of her marriage to Russell Brand right before she has to go onstage, and she slowly pulls herself together, steps onto a hidden platform, pastes on a smile as she turns on the candy-cane pinwheels attached to her bra top, and raises up to the stage to perform for thousands of people. I also thought of Madonna onstage as as sad drunk clown, Beyonce whispering “Are you cheating on me?” in Lemonade, and Britney Spears shaving her head, and it makes me want to wrap all of them in blankets and smuggle them away to Monterey where they can sit on the beach and drink rosé and listen to Fleetwood Mac while draped in pashminas with no men around like the ending of Big Little Lies.
Throughout Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga is in serious physical pain. She has a massage therapist on call. An assistant occasionally pops into the frame to hand her a pill and a glass of water. There’s a scene in which she goes to the doctor while makeup artists hover over her, preparing her for a live appearance while she’s still dressed in a paper hospital gown. When talking about her health, Gaga is the most vulnerable and relatable. Much of her chronic pain originated after she had surgery on an acute labral tear and a broken hip in 2013. For years, she has performed through the pain, able to push it from her mind when the adrenaline of being onstage takes over. I once injured myself while doing a knee slide during “Wrecking Ball” at a karaoke bar and did not feel the effects until the next day, so I’VE BEEN THERE.
Amidst chronic pain and fatigue, Gaga has the biggest moment of her career to get through: the Super Bowl half-time show. The documentary is bookended by footage of Gaga’s 2017 headlining performance on what many consider to be the world’s biggest stage. In an early planning meeting with her team, Gaga expresses that she doesn’t want to do anything that’s expected of her--no meat dresses, no shirtless male dancers, no shock value. Instead, she goes for a more traditional medley of her biggest hits with choreographed dancing, an entrance from the top of the stadium suspended on wires, and a single costume change from a glittery bodysuit into a sequined set of shoulder pads and booty shorts. In the final rehearsals before the big show, Gaga is stressed and short-tempered. She wants every detail to be perfect, from the timing of a costume change to the lining on the inside of her jacket, and sternly speaks to her team when something is amiss. I can only imagine the pressure of preparing for a performance knowing that over 111 million people will be watching, criticizing and dissecting every single moment. Sometimes I break out into anxiety sweats because I remember I said something stupid in 2002.
The documentary doesn’t show the performance, instead cutting to Gaga’s teary, elated reaction immediately afterwards as she is congratulated by her friends and family back in the dressing room. In that moment, you can see why she has fought through pain for years, has sacrificed relationships, and demands perfection from her team. She lives for the applause.
Right around the release of Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga announced the postponement of the rest of her current world tour, revealing that she has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I saw her perform live when the tour came through Chicago this past summer, and while she put on the fantastic, high-energy show she always does, there were long moments where she stopped and talked to the crowd about her family, her aunt Joanne (the album’s namesake, who passed away from lupus), and shared a tearful tribute to her good friend who recently died of cancer. She’s earned a nice long rest, and I hope she finds a respite from the pain. I recommend some time on the beach and maybe a glass or two of rosé.