We all know Lady Gaga, or at least we think we do. She’s the multi-hyphenate musician turned actress who’s managed to sell out stadiums, win Golden Globes and steal the hearts of a generation of disenfranchised youth. She’s an enigma. An unstoppable modern icon of pop culture who continues to surprise a loyal public with her endless supply of beguiling looks and proud political voice. Love her or loathe her, you can’t deny her impact.

Almost ten years after she first broke out, the 31-year-old Italian-American star is still a pop music savior; a risk-taker whether she’s wearing a meat dress or a pair of cut-off denim shorts. Thanks to its normality, her latest foray into country-tinged chart music (a move that saw her shed the sequined skin that she’s become synonymous with) has been heralded her most interesting career moment to date. Documentary filmmaker Chris Moukarbel – who made the portrait of the equally iconic, elusive art genius Banksy in Banksy Does New York – was there to capture it, trimming a year of footage into the brilliant new Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two.

Filmed between the writing stages of her fourth studio album Joanne and her monumental appearance at the 2017 Super Bowl, the film turns a cultural icon into a relatable human being in a way that so many music documentaries try and ultimately fail to. Sure Gaga has a reputation to uphold, but we get an overwhelming impression here that she’s done with the bullshit imposed on her by the media and her naysayers at this point in her career. The film Moukarbel has made focuses on the Joanne era alone, and refuses to dwell on her more theatrical past, becoming a portrait of a woman rather than one of a celebrity. Trust, it’s all the better for it.

As a public, we see the lives of pop stars – through social media, paparazzi shots and album campaigns – as unattainable fantasies: endless cash, international travel and a millions-strong, obsessive following. The typical pop star docs, such as Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never, One Direction’s This is Us and Katy Perry’s Part of Me, to name a few – try to strike a balance between their subjects’ spectacular lifestyles, and the deeper, more emotionally wrought moments in their lives.

But when presented on camera, these often feel like constructs. They tend to be formed to quench the audience’s unwavering obsession with reality TV melodrama; meager situations amplified to seem worse than they actually are, or presented with tearjerking string scores as if to tap the audience member on the shoulder and say, “This is the point where you should cry.” It might be wildly entertaining to watch a pop star sing and flail about a stage for 90 minutes, but when it comes to the crux of what makes a documentary great – that’s heart, by the way – most of these movies fall short of leaving a resonating message.

We have a decade of Kardashian obsession to thank for that, but Five Foot Two doesn’t copy the E! network’s emotion-wringing methods. Instead, the film’s most touching moments stem from unprovoked moments of intimacy between Gaga and her shockingly normal family.

Take, for example, the scene in which Gaga makes an impromptu stop by her grandmother’s house to play her the title track from her latest record, “Joanne,” a song she recorded in memory of her late aunt who died suddenly when she was 19, before Gaga was even born.

Through her iPhone speaker, Gaga plays the ballad to her grandmother, holding it close up to her ear to make sure she can hear: “Take my hand, stay Joanne / Heaven’s not ready for you / Every part of my aching heart / Needs you more than the angels do.” It’s a brilliant showcase of the singer’s flair for personal songwriting, and the way that Moukarbel allows the music to speak for itself. There are no frills in that scene, a policy that Five Foot Two adheres to throughout.

By now, we as an audience are used to being brought up to date with the history of pop stars who have, perhaps prematurely, already entered the circle of legends in the music biz. We’re led to believe that the life of a 20 or 30-something musician needs to be broken down and explained to us in simple terms; through flashbacks, archive footage and talking heads. Refusing to pander to the basic nature of glossy pop docs, Five Foot Two spends every moment in the presence of its protagonist, allowing her to speak about her life and not turn to the entourage of friends and family that surround her.

Between scenes of her creative process (Gaga doing dance rehearsals) and everyday anecdotes (like when she accidentally crashes her car into producer Mark Ronson’s in the studio’s parking lot), Five Foot Two allows us to sit in on Gaga’s treatments for chronic pain, brought on by her recent diagnosis with the disease fibromyalgia. Somehow, watching Gaga weep as she receives pain-relieving injections for a debilitating illness doesn’t feel invasive or exploitative – it feels necessary. While resilience is a key factor in the construction and survival of a pop star, it’s important for the public to understand that fame is often the most fickle and irrelevant part of someone’s life, and there are much greater obstacles that stand in the way of stardom than messy relationships and production mishaps.

Most pop star documentaries are made to uphold that fantasy and appease a loyal fanbase, hopefully winning more fans over in the process, but there’s something about Gaga: Five Foot Two that feels incredibly far detached from its stereotypical, cash cow peers. Rooted in reality, this is a film about a superstar made with grit rather than glitter. The vision of its director doesn’t submit to the dazzling idea of fame being something we should all strive for, and the only “concert movie” sequences are Gaga at small gigs performing behind a piano. Instead, it feels like an antidote to them all, teaching Gaga’s obsessive fans (and newcomers who watch it, too) that there’s more to life than having everybody know your name; it’s merely an added bonus to the brilliant work you, as an artist, are permitted to make.

‘Gaga: Five Foot Two’ is out on September 22 on Netflix.

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  • Imagery: Netflix
Words by Douglas Greenwood
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