There are many purposes for which a documentary may be made. Sometimes it’s to inform the public on an important issue, sometimes it’s a tool for communicating a human interest story, and still others it functions as a marketing exercise, often masquerading as one of the other two in order to sell its audience on an idea or, more cynically, a product. The product of Gaga: Five Foot Two is clearly Lady Gaga herself, but what remains unclear as to whether the purpose of her biographical film was originally as a career builder or if it just came out that way.
The thesis of Five Foot Two is about as basic and non-committal as they come, spending a year with Lady Gaga as she prepares for the release of her album Joanne and her performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. The film already assumes you’re a fan of Gaga coming in, offering no introductory messages or purported purpose to the film other than to make some professional home movies, and the closest the film comes to an arc is in watching Gaga work through the release of the album and having her career culminate in that Super Bowl performance.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the emotions presented by Gaga, her family, and her work relationships are all genuine and heartfelt, exemplifying the artist at some of her highest and lowest points over the course of that year. We see Gaga working in the studio, at a music video shoot, and performing concerts, but we also see Gaga struggling with the pains of fibromyalgia and of losing romantic partners at milestones of her career. We’re also privy to some backstory about a song from her new album, which is clearly a very personal and difficult expression of an event that affected her and her family greatly. It is in these moments, when the fame and the business of music are stripped away, that Five Foot Two approaches a heartfelt reality.
However, it just can’t help but feel as if the film is cut more as a promotional tool than as a character study. We are only ever meant to see Lady Gaga in two lights: sympathetic or inspiring, both of which serve to humanize her in the wake of a career that has thus far relied on larger-than-life pop surrealism. There is constant talk of how Gaga wants to enter her thirties as a more grounded and adult person, and that while she enjoys the high fashion and antics that defined her early career, she’s ready to move on to more personal projects like Joanne. While that sentiment may be genuine, it exposes the documentary as a cynical attempt to steer her public image toward something more desirable for her career, shallowly peddling her sincere emotions under the guise of a Netflix-ready documentary rather than an especially long special edition album bonus feature.
Gaga: Five Foot Two is a bit of a documentary enigma. There is clearly a desire in this biographical documentary to paint Lady Gaga in an empathetic and relatable light by presenting her real life and emotions, but it’s hard to parse exactly where the genuine Gaga ends and the promotional cynicism begins. As far as feature length advertisements go, it’s a slick and well-produced one, but to pretend it’s anything more than a carefully crafted bit of career reinvention would be willfully deluded.