If you watched just the first few minutes of Lady Gaga’s new Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s only a pampered pop star who has her every need met with a snap of her fingers.
In the opening scene, Gaga strolls through her luxurious Malibu estate in a revealing body suit and sweats. She feeds pieces of chicken to her adorable dogs. She eats food someone else appears to have prepared for her. When she climbs a staircase lined with star-shaped balloons, she explains they’re to celebrate starring in a new Bradley Cooper movie. She puts her plate down so she can get a massage.
For a moment the film feels poised to turn into an unwitting parody of fame’s bittersweet trappings. But then it becomes something else altogether when Gaga confesses to the camera that the searing pain in her body happens when she gets depressed. It also stems back to the hip “trauma” she sustained from an injury a few years back.
Suddenly Gaga, who is reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, seems relatable. Like anyone else, the woman feels and must manage her physical pain. You can see, when she’s crying in agony or searching for answers in an appointment with her doctor, how the torment of the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia wears down her soul.
The revelation of Gaga’s vulnerability only gets bigger as the film goes on. While the documentary offers a glimpse into the megastar’s life, it also strangely doubles as a guide to coping with your own humanity. The fundamental lesson is this: Emotional and physical pain is real, and pretending it’s not is the path to suffering.
Some might argue that Gaga is acting for the camera, that she’s being raw to artistically portray rawness. Indeed, the film’s director, Chris Moukarbel, told Vulture that her manager thought a documentary could show that Gaga is “multidimensional.” We’ll never see the hundreds of hours of footage that become an hour-and-forty-minute movie so it’s impossible to know how she changed from moment to moment.
Nevertheless, the superb editing weaves together candid snapshots of Gaga’s personal life (attending a baptism, visiting her grandmother) and the intensity of her professional work (playing at Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday party, performing at the Super Bowl). You can tell that Gaga is like any other human grappling with the whiplash of success followed by disappointment and vice versa. And then in a flash, she’s not normal anymore. She’s getting her makeup done while in a paper gown at a doctor’s appointment. She’s exhausted by the never-ending practical demands of stardom (media interviews, promotional spots, constant travel) and must still meet her fans in the street with grace and patience.
While these scenes are obviously less relatable, Gaga somehow manages to show how they’re intertwined with her pain, sleep deprivation, relationship heartbreak, and loneliness. She’s not complaining about her circumstances as much as she’s viscerally aware that they’re shaping her in ways that don’t feel right. That suffering is universal and perhaps being able to communicate it is why Gaga is a global phenomenon.
On social media and through her Born This Way Foundation, which focuses partly on mental health, Gaga constantly attacks the stigma of admitting both physical and emotional pain. In the film, she grieves with her grandmother over the 1974 death of her aunt, after whom her album Joanne is named. While her grandmother urges Gaga not to become “maudlin” over Joanne’s death, because it happened so long ago and her daughter has not been forgotten, the scene is a moving reminder that family trauma never ends — it just moves like an undercurrent through the next generation.
When Gaga describes the gross sexual expectations of too many male music producers, you can see that being a powerful and successful woman in her line of work actually might subject you to more abuse, not less. “I’m not a receptacle for your pain,” she says of those producers. “I’m not just a place for you to put it.” No doubt her fans will carry those declarations with them and wield them as defense weapons in their own lives.
The film doesn’t neatly resolve all of Gaga’s conflicts, and clearly that’s not the point. Rather the point is that Gaga knows she’s privileged to have so many people trying to treat her pain, so how are other people in a similar situation without the same resources surviving? The point is that pain, whether emotional or physical, will always catch up with you, so why deny that it’s lurking in the shadows?
Posing those questions is what makes Gaga, and this documentary, unique. Plenty of pop stars have sung about their demons, but she doesn’t mind acknowledging hers off stage in a way that risks killing her mystique. That courage doesn’t — and shouldn’t — make her a savior, but Gaga has done something vital in leveraging her fame to help others speak their truth.
You might not know it by looking at her outrageous outfits, elaborate music videos, and over-the-top performances, but she’s the rare star who’s content to do the hard work of helping dismantle the stigma that traps so many in their pain, brick by brick.