About midway through Gaga: Five Foot Two, the titular pop star is gearing up to meet her adoring public in New York City after many months hidden away in studios on both coasts, creating her 2016 album Joanne. As she comes out the door, throngs of paparazzi and adoring fans waiting to pounce, director Chris Moukarbel flashes back to this scene as it has played out at different points over the last decade. We see Gaga making her way past the cameras in an outlandish array of wigs, sunglasses, and eye-popping Philip Treacy headpieces, each look an entire concept, a flight of imagination. At one point a silvery cape she’s wearing inflates into an array of spikes. The fans crowd around worshipfully, screaming “Mommy!” as she glides past them imperiously.
Gosh, that was fun, I thought to myself during this dizzying flash of nostalgia. Incidentally, it’s the first glimpse that Five Foot Two gives us of anything Lady Gaga did before the year 2016, which is somewhat odd for a film that hinges its reason for existing on the idea of culmination. It turns out to be the only glimpse as well: Moukarbel’s film, which was produced with what I sense is a heavy hand from Gaga herself, almost myopically documents the recent past: namely, the production and release of Joanne, and her 2017 Super Bowl halftime performance.
In some ways, this is a relief; there are little of the Behind the Music biopic elements that would introduce us to a young Stefani Germanotta, the awkward school pictures (though they do show up), some blurry SD digital clips of her old pre-stardom downtown act. We meet Gaga as if she were a friend letting us into her house on a particularly busy day on which she didn’t quite have time to do her makeup. We see her struggle with the excruciating pain of what she now says is fibromyalgia, getting iced down by a coterie of assistants while she cries into a pillow. At one point while talking to her design team by the pool, she casually takes off her bikini top and freeboobs the rest of the conversation. On a superficial level, it’s all quite intimate.
But when she kicks off the release of Joanne with a release party at the Bitter End in the West Village, there’s no mention of the fact that it was one of the venues where she started her career as a performer (I stumbled upon that myself in an old 60 Minutes interview on YouTube). It’s ironic, as Joanne is meant to be a return to Germanotta’s roots in every sense: musically, artistically, personally. But those roots remain a sketch at best within the film itself. There is a fair amount of time spent on the album’s namesake, Gaga’s aunt Joanne Stefani, who lost her life to lupus at age 19. But Gaga’s decision to mold the album around this relative who died a decade before she was born is never really articulated; even her grandmother, Joanne’s mother, seems a little confused by the preoccupation. For someone that Gaga has called “one of the most important figures in my life,” Joanne never feels like more than an outline.
Five Foot Two distinguishes itself from similar projects from Justin Bieber and Katy Perry by not trying to be a 101 class in the subject and her personal history, but when it hits similar beats — heartbreak, the physical demands of performing, tearful scenes with family — anyone who doesn’t have a Little Monster’s encyclopedic knowledge might feel a little emotionally lost. Moukarbel’s often strange decisions, especially his choices in music, compound this, and feel like lily-gilding. A slow-motion scene at the baptism of Gaga’s niece feels as grand as any Godfather tribute, but we don’t have enough insight into the Germanottas to elevate it to something truly cinematic.
When the film switches gears to the halftime show, the momentum feels more focused, partially because the flash and dazzle of the Super Bowl spectacle is more in line with what the average consumer knows Gaga for. The preparation for the performance is retrospective in the way Joanne purposefully was not. (The performance itself, which is not shown in the documentary, is indeed, a series of greatest hits, from “Poker Face” to “Born This Way.”) On the morning of the performance she admits she feels a little sad, wondering where she can possibly go after performing on the biggest stage in the world. Five Foot Two doesn’t quite seem like the answer. If anything, it feels like a rest stop before the comeback the film would never acknowledge is still on the horizon.