Lady Gaga stands tall at Five Foot Two. It’s the name of her new Netflix documentary, a lyrical line taken from the Dean Martin standard “5 foot 2 Eyes of Blue,” which plays over the loud bustle of a crowded Italian baby shower Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, attends in the midst of an otherwise foreboding two-hour doc. You could say it’s an unusually average scene to see the pop powerhouse thrive, the same entity who once famously donned a meat dress, or emerged onto the Grammy red carpet in an egg, or allowed a vomit painter to puke on her during a live-streamed and heavily publicized SXSW performance. But in Five Foot Two, it exists alongside other images of normalcy, Gaga’s Joanne period, her move from outrageous outfits and larger-than-life avant-garde tricks to stripped down pop-rock, back-to-the-basics Stefani offering the world nothing more than her self, her love for family, and the stories that arise in the process.
Joanne is Gaga’s fifth studio album, a soft release fully stripped from the electro dance-pop and the bad ra-ra-ra-ra-romances that made her a household name. Joanne is also her middle name, and the name of her deceased aunt Joanne Stefani Germanotta, who died at age 19 from lupus, 12 years before Gaga was born. Then unknowledgeable about autoimmune disease, doctors offered to remove Aunt Joanne’s hands in attempt to slow its growth—her mother (Gaga’s grandmother) said no, knowing her daughter was going to pass soon, because she was an artist and deserved that liberty before her untimely death. Gaga has dedicated her album to her late aunt, to give credence to her legacy, to make something because her family member never got the chance to, and to finally express herself and her family history with no gimmick. Music documentaries often arrive at a time of real transition, Five Foot Two arrives during and after it—the album recording and release process, culminating in her less-than-memorable performance at the Super Bowl this year. But it’s mostly the story of Joanne.
The film as a whole is, in a word, delightful. Pop stars, now more than ever, feel the pressure to reinvent themselves with each creative endeavor. By the time Joanne hit the marketplace in October 2016, it had been two years since Gaga’s collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek with Tony Bennett, and three since her breakthrough Artpop. She bid farewell to her 20’s and entered her 30’s (a subject of conversation that comes up through Five Foot Two, addressing lingering insecurity within Gaga but mostly acceptance—she’s no longer a young woman hiding from the spotlight beneath an art project dress). Unlike the one-to-two-year average pop cycle of an album, Gaga gave herself room to grow, and in that process, realized she no longer wanted to play a role—she wanted to sing about her family, she wanted to survive her divorce, she wanted to adopt a new uniform of pastel pinks (a cowboy hat, for some down-home razzle dazzle and black t-shirts.) She wanted to show her face—truly—for the first time. And Five Foot Two walks us through that process, warts and all.
There’s a particularly memorable scene where she’s smoking joints outside her studio having just finished tracking with producer Mark Ronson. Gaga’s chatting with a studio musician and expressing the limitations of her past persona, who she is and wants to become now. It ends with her gesturing to the camera and laughing, “You can’t use any of that.” It felt true and cringe-y, like being the sober friend at a house party into the early morning hours, your confidantes new and old sharing their inner most desires and concerns—conversations they hope no one remembers, they won’t remember, but you do. I doubt Gaga was embarrassed by the result, but that little moment of awkwardness served to show the world (at least, the music documentary-watching world) that she was just like any other artist, one with big ideas of how culture works and moves, some short-sighted by individual experiment, but big and true nonetheless.
Outside of her expression of personality as newfound humanity, Five Foot Two gives us insight to Gaga’s physical limitations, furthering our empathy for both Gaga the performer and Stefani the human. After breaking her hip a few years prior, we’re given a first hand look at her ongoing battle with fibromyalgia—her daily treatments and in one moment, her most intimate struggles. She breaks down, crying, covering her face from the camera with a soft, “Do I look pathetic?” It’s the lament of someone both embarrassed by their medical limitation, but also emotionally weakened by it. Anyone with any sort of ongoing or chronic illness knows the feeling too well. And this woman plays stadiums. She’s chosen to show us more of herself in song than less, “brave” doesn’t seem like too cliché a descriptor for her efforts. Her battles—in her pop persona, in her romantic life, in her physical body—become public and personal.
I’ve never seen a pop star music documentary so dedicated to showing the protagonist’s interest in newfound feminism, either—and the action of bolstering your fellow woman, helping them succeed and approaching a dog-eat-dog industry with kindness instead of competition—but then again, I’ve never seen a pop star music documentary on Lady Gaga.
She’s seen in studio with Florence Welch of Florence & the Machine, singing-speaking “Hey Girl” to one another. She often discusses limitations and expectations placed on her and her body, and her chosen platforms to reject them on and with. When she flirts with misandrist language, it’s only situational, examples of real life experiences. She, like all of us, has room to grow, but allowed us real insight into that growth, the pain and embarrassment of it all.
I’ve read a lot of hot takes about Five Foot Two, as is the pop cultural criticism arena we live in presently. I’ve read a lot of them, and I’ve disagreed with most—they tend towards negativity, or lambasting Gaga’s inauthentic portrayal of her authentic self. But in Western pop, all we ask for our celebrities is to give the appearance of reality—we shouldn’t, and we largely don’t, expect them to live it. If they did, where would we find our fantasies here on earth? But in the case of Gaga, Joanne is real, Joanne is you and me, and Joanne is her—standing tall at Five Foot Two, allowing the Netflix-watching world to have a piece of her. She’s vulnerable, sure, and she’s taken control of her own narrative, her own autonomy, her own Joanne. What isn’t aspirational about that?
Maria Sherman is a music and culture writer living in Philadelphia. She’s a contributing editor at the Talkhouse and contributes regularly to places like Rolling Stone, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Billboard and more. She most recently held the title of Senior Correspondent at Fuse Media and before that, worked to build BuzzFeed’s music vertical.