Premiering, no doubt by minutely planned design, at the Toronto Film Festival just as its subject glides through Canada on her world tour, documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two offers fans of pop star Lady Gaga an artfully casual, precisely spontaneous glimpse into the life of their idol, filmed in 2016 while she was working on her latest album, Joanne. Directed and filmed by Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York, Me at the Zoo), and produced not just by him and Live Nation’s Heather Parry but also by Gaga herself and manager Bobby Campbell, this is certainly an entertaining-enough watch, even for those without much rooting interest in Gaga. Sure, it’s hardly in the rock-doc hall of fame like Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back (1967) or even Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), but as a canny mesh of artistry, marketing and brand building, it achieves its ends: promoting the star, providing desirable exclusive content to Netflix subscribers (the streaming service is one of the producers) and generating some opening-weekend, red-carpet glamour for Toronto.

 

Those aims were partly achieved before the film even press-screened in Toronto by generating copy in the gossip press. Word on the net was that the doc would feature Gaga (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) exposing herself and talking frankly about her struggles with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and chronic physical pain from a broken hip, as well as her breakup with fiance Taylor Kinney.

Sure enough, she speaks up about these things, and she even lets Moukarbel’s camera film her visiting a doctor where, clad only in a paper hospital gown, she reels off a long list of all the meds she takes. A few minutes later, she continues the consult as makeup artists apply war paint in preparation for her next appearance. The whole scene starts to acquire a certain ghoulishness, taking exhibitionism to a new level of extremity.

More frivolously, there are shots of her smoking a joint or two, or maybe just smoking (it’s impressive that she can get away with lighting up whatever it is in so many workplaces where mere mortals would be arrested for vaping); accidentally driving into her producer Mark Ronson’s car and totaling his bumper; going topless by a pool while having a meeting with her image consultants and stylists; and having a minor diva-fit “meltdown” on the set of American Horror Story when plans change suddenly. Throwing red meat to the campier constituency of her fan base, she throws shade at Madonna — somewhat hypocritically, perhaps — by criticizing her fellow star for talking badly about her to the media, instead of to her face.

Despite all the blurry camerawork and footage of an un-made-up Gaga relaxing around her house while the entourage bustles around her, above all she comes across as an extremely focused, warm but formidable micromanager. She seems collaborative and affectionate with her team, often dispensing hugs and taking an interest in their private lives, including that of one colleague on her creative team who’s just been diagnosed with cancer. Gaga exudes nuclear levels of magnetism, and the film captures her intense relationship with her friends, family and fans. Still, one can imagine woe would betide anyone who might neglect, say, to get the lining on a sequined jacket fixed the instant she asks for it, as happens just before she does the halftime show at the Super Bowl.

The scene in which she plays “Joanne,” the title track for her new album and an intense tribute to her late aunt who died after having her hands amputated, to her aged grandmother is particularly fascinating. Gaga clearly craves approval and validation from the elderly lady and seems to be pushing to create a cathartic drama out of the scene, but her grandmother seems resistant to all this emotional hyperbole, insisting that the loss is well in the past now. In a way, it’s moments like this, where Gaga can’t completely control the script, that make the movie more interesting than it realizes.

Technically, the package is assembled with competence and style, with graceful editing by Greg Arata helping to create a strong sense of story and continuity. Moukarbel and his sound editors frequently use swelling soundtrack choices and a flurry of fast edits to suggest the frenzy of Gaga’s life.

Production companies: Live Nation Productions, Mermaid Films II, Permanent Wave
Distributor: Netflix
Director-cinematographer: Chris Moukarbel
Producers: Heather Parry, Bobby Campbell, Chris Moukarbel, Lady Gaga
Executive producers: Michael Rapino, Arthur Fogel, Kim Ray, Lisa Nishimura, Roya Rastegar, Ben Cotner
Editor: Greg Arata
Music: Patrick Belaga
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Event)

100 minutes