There's one moment in the new Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, streaming since Friday (22 September), that really sums the whole thing up. Lady Gaga, surely one of the defining popular culture icons of this century so far, is having her make-up done. And at the same time, she's being given injections to soothe the chronic pain she experiences as the result of a hip injury sustained on tour in 2013. The image is an apt, sad one, and perfectly expresses the conflict at the heart of the film, and, presumably, at the core of Gaga's existence: public vs. private.
An intensely prominent figure, Lady Gaga began her career as a provocateur who many simply viewed as an attention-seeker. She's stayed around since via the sheer might of her talent. She is, to use a term from her beloved world of musical theatre, a triple threat: a whirlwind of singing, dancing, and acting. Her songwriting skill has, largely, held up for almost a decade, though she remains someone whose shock-value visuals almost eclipsed her vocal talents, which her varied performances at awards ceremonies and sporting events display.
Being a star of her magnitude has its downsides. The main takeaway from director Chris Moukarbel's intense study, undertaken as she recorded her fourth studio album Joanne, and prepared for her career-defining appearance at the halftime show of the 51st Superbowl in February of this year, is that Lady Gaga is lonely. And while the isolation specific to fame is oft-cited – the story of the ingenue who seemingly has it all, but can't find anyone to trust is one we're all familiar with – it's all the more visceral and moving when channelled through someone we already feel like we know.
Heralded for her aesthetic flamboyance and blood-and-guts performance style, it's easy for fans to feel familiar with Gaga. She certainly gives more away than most – even when she's not explicitly communicating what she's going through, she's leaving it all on the stage to a messier extent than her peers. While Beyoncé stands poised, and Rihanna summons attitude, Gaga is more likely to be found contorted, one leg up on the piano, literally in tears. Her political outspokenness also breeds a certain informality: we know what Lady Gaga stands for in a way we never will with, say, Taylor Swift, and while I personally might not agree with all of it, as a consumer of music and culture, I'm grateful at least that she uses her platform to say something.
But Gaga: Five Foot Two is not really about what Gaga has said: it's about the things she's mostly been silent about. And it is in hearing her speak about that pain – physical, emotional – that we come a little closer to really knowing Lady Gaga the person, rather than Lady Gaga the performing robot alien. The film is especially good at depicting the realities of her punishing schedule, and the effect it has on her: she's constantly surrounded by people but also always flitting between groups – never alone, but always by herself. She moves from the massage sessions that help her manage the persistent illness she now deals with post-hip injury, to meetings about her Super Bowl performance, to an American Horror Story shoot at a pace which feels daunting to even watch, and it's as though she is constantly being shepherded somewhere or other.
In among the hustle and bustle, though, is real insight into the person that Lady Gaga has become, maybe made public for the first time ever. Left damaged by three break-ups over the course of her career, having separated with her fiancé Taylor Kinney in July of 2016, she speaks candidly about the perils of fame and what it can do to women (she gestures towards Amy Winehouse, without saying her name). Specifically, she comments "My love life has just imploded. I sold 10 million and lost Matt. I sold 30 million and lost Luke. I did a movie [the upcoming, Bradley Cooper-directed remake of A Star is Born] and lose Taylor. It's like a turnover. This is the third time I've had my heart broken like this."
And while the absence of a romantic partner during filming (Gaga is now dating the talent agent Christian Carino) is what lends the film a lot of its emotional fuel, it also provides opportunities for connection elsewhere. The film's most touching, revealing moments come during portrayals of the genuine bond she shares with members of her family, in particular her paternal grandmother, the mother of the aunt – Joanne, an artist, dead of lupus aged 19 after refusing to have her hands, the means of her creativity, amputated – who inspired Gaga's most recent album cycle. As Gaga plays the record's title track to her grandmother from an iPhone, legacy and heartbreak weigh heavy and it's easily the most affecting, humanising part of the documentary. And though it would be disingenuous to say that the film is entirely honest – we are, for example, reminded of Joanne's commercial success rather than its critical struggles – there is a great deal of the real here, from her tears of joy at being able to stand on the piano stool without experiencing pain, to her quiet exasperation with an incessant fan.
I left Gaga: Five Foot Two having enjoyed it, and feeling reminded of Gaga's towering talent via all of the excellent studio and performance footage, but until this morning, I also had a lingering idea that something about it was a little off. Now I know what that is. There was nothing wrong with it at all: it was simply that I expected too much. What felt off was seeing Lady Gaga – a pop star I have loved deeply since I was 14 – acting like an ordinary person, expressing nonchalance, talking shit, crying in pain. And now, having squared that in my mind, the portrayal of her doing all of these things, and everything else, feels valuable. It feels like the sort of thing we should see more, but rarely do in an age of social media, curation, and polish. Which, makes sense. Gaga's always been an innovator.
Follow Lauren on Twitter.