Among the first scenes in director Chris Moukarbel’s Netflix documentary portrait of Lady Gaga, the diminutive pop celebrity is shown sitting next to a car and venting to one of her musicians about Madonna’s withering snipe from ABC News correspondent Cynthia McFadden’s 2012 interview. You know the one, where Madonna had Merriam-Webster scrambling to add another bullet point to their definition for the word “reductive.” “The only thing that really bothers me about her,” Gaga says, punctuating her point with a cigarette drag, “is that I’m Italian, and from New York, you know. So, like, if I’ve got a problem with somebody, I’m going to fucking tell you to your face. But, no matter how much respect I have for her as a performer, I could never wrap my head around the fact that she would not look me in the eye and tell me I’m ’reductive,’ or whatever.” So begins Lady Gaga: Truth or Dare.
Okay, that’s a cheap shot. Gaga: Five Foot Two is thematically far removed from Madonna’s 1991 backstage portrait, even if Gaga and Moukarbel all but invite the comparison right off the bat. Truth or Dare, released at the height of Madonna’s imperial phase, revealed just enough of the ribald nature of pop’s greatest libertine belle to suggest how quickly it could all backfire in her face if left unchecked—which most histories of the Material Girl will say is exactly what happened in the following few years with the twin release of Erotica and Sex. In contrast, Five Foot Two begins with Gaga arguably past at least the initial apex of her career, nearly a decade in finally making good on one of the central lessons of her artistic predecessor by embracing reinvention, dropping the artifice and stripping away overt grandiosity for her latest LP, Joanne.
Far from seeming like a strategic element created to define that reinvention, Five Foot Two instead feels like a natural outgrowth of it. An album that invites fans to revel in the perfect illusion of getting to know the real Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta? An album that pushes, for once and for all, the meat dress down the garbage disposal? What else could Gaga do but invite a camera crew to follow her through the quotidian details of her hectic schedule managing a multimedia career, and occasional visits with Grandma to look through stacks of family photos? The documentary isn’t consistently engrossing, despite frequent tearful interludes and glimpses into the pain-laden existence she lives under the pall of fibromyalgia. It lacks the momentum and artistic intent that the best musician-centered documentaries all share, instead settling for feigned realism as its own reward.
And at the same time, the doc does give Gaga an opportunity to break free from the shadows of her influences, by showing her as her own individual brand of millennial superstar. She’s captured on the music video set of “Perfect Illusion,” Joanne’s least representative and most backward-thinking cut, keeping company with her goofball dad while desert-dusted extras simulate moshing amid a curved wall of strobe lights. She goes “undercover” in Walmart in order to purchase a copy of her own album. Poolside, she explains to her creative directors that she’s done doing the glam thing, and is ready to strip it all down to her bare essentials, and then proceeds to take her swim top off and let her boobs hang free. “Sorry, it just feels better,” Gaga explains, simultaneously pulling a prank and then positioning herself as the only one oblivious to the punchline. So by the time she and her film reach the climactic performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, her sense of wonder that she’s even there in the first place feels truly authentic.