I spent the better part of my 20s working with teenagers in one form or another. Whether as a youth minister, a creative writing teacher, or a photography TA, one dazzling thread remained the same: Gaga. I spent time with kids who didn’t just adore her music, they worshiped her. They felt freed in some way by who she allowed them to be; she allowed them to be themselves (or whatever version of themselves they wanted to be) in all their average weirdness. In Gaga: Five Foot Two (a documentary released last month on Netflix), one of Lady Gaga’s fans says as much: “She doesn’t know it, but she’s saved my life over and over again.”

If it’s at all possible in the medium of film, Gaga: Five Foot Two (directed by Chris Moukarbel of Banksy Does New York) leans heavily toward the genre of memoir; Lady Gaga herself is listed as producer. Some have viewed her involvement in a negative light, and yet her creative hand in the endeavor affords us a unique look at what she wants us to know about herself (as far as I can tell, this is no different than the objective of a memoirist, if she/he is honest and any good).

Author Mary Karr says in The Art of Memoir, the truth of a memoirist’s self “has a way of bobbing up on the pages like a badly weighted corpse. You may as well bring the reader to the swampy grave from the git-go.” Moukarbel’s film literally does just that.

The opening shot is a close-up of the pop star’s feet hanging in the air, pre-2017 Super Bowl halftime show. The limpness in her dangling legs at first give the impression that she might be a cumbersome dead body swinging from a noose, certainly not anybody’s savior. As the minutes go by, our morbid suspicions are confirmed.

Gaga: Five Foot Two never disguises itself as a biopic. Moukarbel chronicles only a sliver of Lady Gaga’s life from 2016-2017. The movie begins after her breakup with ex-fiancé, Taylor Kinney, follows her through the making and release of Joanne, and ends with her “rising” to perform at Super Bowl LI. In my opinion, the movie succeeds in revealing the woman under all the meat slabs, but maybe not as clear-cut as we would hope.

Emily Yoshida of Vulture noted in her review of the film, “On a superficial level, it’s all quite intimate.” Especially given Lady Gaga’s artistic and/or financial collaboration, one would be remiss in not asking the question: how much of Joanne and even Gaga: Five Foot Two is just another well-constructed mask, only this one stripped back and bare?

Halfway through the documentary, Gaga reads a poem written by Joanne Germanotta (her deceased aunt and the inspiration behind her latest album):

“Hear what I’m not saying,
Don’t be fooled.
I wear a mask,
A thousand masks
So I play the game
The glittering but empty
parade of the masks.”

When it comes to Lady Gaga, this poem is almost overly apt. Since the artist grabbed our attention in 2008, she’s basically been the pacesetter of the world’s mask parade. In her first album and its follow-up—The Fame (2008) and then The Fame Monster (2010)—Gaga seemed to call our attention to the masks we wear, the hard and glittery pretenses we create, by embodying approximately one million awesome and bizarre veneers of her own. The woman has so many poker faces it’s hard to keep up (see what I did there?—Gaga, oo-la-la. I was born this way, ya’ll…).

Lady Gaga, in her persona and her performance, has long referenced pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol was known for being unknowable. He once said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol just look at the surface, of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Much of his medium was screen-printing—always something between the naked paper itself and the human eye. Gaga, for nearly ten years, has operated similarly. She is practically a human smokescreen. We have estimated who she is by what she places between her self and her audience—wild costumes and couture, outlandish make-up and eccentric performances. Warhol’s classic attire was black on black—notably the same “uniform” Gaga wears during her season of Joanne.

Gaga’s late aunt (and her own middle namesake: Stafani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) is the muse who breathed life into Joanne. In the documentary, Gaga describes both Joanne the person, Joanne the persona, and Joanne the album saying,

It was my father’s sister. She died when she was 19. She went to the hospital with my grandmother…

Something was growing on her hands. And the doctors in the 70s, they didn’t know what lupus was, they didn’t know how to treat it. It’s not curable anyway, even now. So they suggested that they immediately amputate her hands. And seeing what that did to [my father] and what that did to my family was the most powerful thing I experienced growing up. My family is the most important thing in my life.

Joanna was an artist. What happened was that my grandmother couldn’t take her hands from her. So she said, “Just please let my daughter, just let her go.” And she told me she went into the waiting room and she prayed to God that He’d take her. Because she said “I don’t want my daughter to remember what her last moments looked like without her hands.” So, you know, I am Joanne. I am my father’s daughter. And that’s what this record is about.


Throughout the film, Moukarbel expertly utilizes shots of Gaga’s own hands, petite yet always powerful and animated. Gaga does not suffer from lupus herself, but from early on we are brought into her own autoimmune journey (she learns the name of her suffering after the filming of the movie: fibromyalgia). Time and again, always seeming to precede a big performance, Gaga writhes in debilitating pain that extends up the side of her body and into her face. Physical therapists stretch her, massage her, and cover her in ice packs while she cries or screams into a pillow. She grieves for the people who suffer from similar pain, but don’t have the means for proper care. In Lady Gaga’s total embodiment of Joanne—broken, needy—she allows her audience to embrace their own Joanne. Instead of burying herself behind the impenetrable folds of another costume, Gaga shows us a part of her that rings true.

In The Art of Memoir, Karr speaks frequently of the masks we wear, and the lifelong difficulty of shedding them. She says of the memoirist committed to exposing her true self:

An excellent carnal writer fashions not a robot, but what feels like a breathing, tasting avatar the reader can climb inside, thus wearing the writer’s hands and standing inside her shoes. The reader gets zipped into your skin.

Gaga: Five Foot Two portrays Lady Gaga as smart, funny, eccentric, but truly (in so many ways) just like us. She has dogs, she rides shotgun, she walks around her house in sweats with no makeup, she has goals, she gets her heart broken, she has panic attacks, she loves her family, works her ass off, attends a baptism, rear-ends a parked car, and she suffers in real and hard ways not only from fibromyalgia but also from agonizing loneliness (the sort of loneliness maybe only celebrities can empathize with). She loses loved ones because of everyday tragedies like cancer, and then for more nuanced-to-fame reasons like her rampant success.

…when I sold ten million records, I lost Matt. I sell thirty million, I lose Luc, you know? I get the movie, I lose Taylor.

In one scene, Gaga laments,

I’m alone…every night. And all these people will leave, right? They will leave. And then I’ll be alone. I go from people touching me all day, and talking at me all day, to total silence.

The viewer is brought into these vulnerable moments, and yet even Joanne wears sunglasses indoors—always a screen between the naked eye and who really lies beneath. These are the details that give way to impressions like “superficial intimacy.”

While Lady Gaga has been savior to so many, one thing is cruelly clear from Gaga: Five Foot Two: she cannot save herself.

Neither could Joanne.

Neither can I.

Halfway into the movie comes (in musical terms) “the bridge,” the transformation. Lady Gaga films her music video for “Perfect Illusion” out in a California desert. The scene (more than the resulting music video) watches like a violent metamorphosis. Instead of going quietly like a butterfly, she wrestles and writhes through her physical inflammation, her drive, and her uncertainty. In the bridge, she moves from girl to woman, from Gaga to Joanne; and how appropriate that, in it, she sings of “illusion.” Audio overlayed in this scene reveals mixed reviews about the new album. One person on the radio says, “Give me back the real Lady Gaga.”

But the question that has yet to be answered is, Who is the real Lady Gaga?

We finally catch a glimpse of her between the four chilly white walls of a doctor’s office.

The scene begins with a shot of Gaga—seemingly naked but for the cross around her neck and the paper gown draped over her shoulders—with her hands cut off at the bottom of the screen.

The specialist asks for her list of medications and the audio trails off before she finishes naming them all.

She explains to the woman, her nose stuffed up from crying:

I have chased this pain for five years. And the fury in all this is that I’m fucking strong, and I can still be me. And when I feel the adrenaline of my music and my fans…I can fucking go. But it doesn’t mean I’m not in pain…

The doctor is confident, sure that she can finally heal Gaga. She lays out phase one—phase two—phase three of her elaborate but certain healing. But Gaga’s face says it all: I’ve heard this all before. In that moment, she is beaten down, defeated, and alone. Gaga takes a minute to collect herself, and then calls her primary doctor on the phone. In a small voice, she utters a sentence we hear only once in this movie:

Hi…it’s Stefani.

Stefani is raw, helpless, childlike, her five-foot-two frame sitting wounded and hunched over. Stefani, weak as she is, has not been snuffed or resolved by fame, beauty, or wealth. She is, if you look close enough, always glaringly there. But as quick as she so clearly emerges on the screen, Stefani retreats back into hiding. The artist goes through with phase one of treatment while her assistant wipes away the smudged mascara and reapplies her make-up, readied to emerge again as Lady Gaga…or Joanne…either way, risen from the dead as someone less unsightly.

The remarkable thing about Lady Gaga having any artistic say in this movie is that whether or not she puts her mask back on, she at least chose to let us witness this unveiling of her self, if only for a moment. The decision alone allows a song like “Born this Way” to take on additional meaning; we aren’t just born with colorful and unique defining traits, we are born helpless. And, curiously, God makes no mistakes.

That very first shot of the movie becomes all the more essential: Lady Gaga, much like Stefani, hangs limp and lifeless. But moments later—from means outside of her self (cable wires)—she rises. This is the fuel of Gaga: Five Foot Two, and it’s a mechanism we can all relate to: Death—Resurrection—Death—Resurrection. And between all the rising and falling is the grit and grappling with who we are both with and beneath the filters and facades; even the effort to strip them down is an act of performance.

The question, as it pertains to the real Lady Gaga, may not yet be fully brought to light. I, for one, am grateful for what she and Moukarbel did expose. Karr’s praise of memoirists says it best:

But I still feel great awe for us—yes, for the masters who wrought lasting beauty from their hard lives, but for the rest of us, too, for the great courage all of us show in trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life. To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely.