"Do I look pathetic?" Lady Gaga asks the camera, her body lying on a pink sofa wrapped in a white towel. She starts to cry and uses both hands to cover her dewy face as a physical therapist places an icepack on her right cheek. Given Gaga's proclivity for artifice and melodrama, it would be easy to question her suffering. But fibromyalgia, the disorder causing her intense body spasms and facial pain, has serious implications for anyone, let alone a person whose job requires her to sing and dance while suspended from football stadium rafters in four-inch silver-studded heels.
Gaga: Five Foot Two, a new Netflix documentary chronicling the recording and release of her fifth studio album, Joanne, highlights her struggle with the condition, which developed after a traumatic hip injury during her Born This Way tour in 2013. Recently, she announced on Instagram that she would have to cancel her current European tour due to severe physical pain. In the documentary , which was shot over a period of eight months, she manages to record the album, shoot a music video for the song "Perfect Illusion," film her Golden Globe-winning episode of American Horror Story, and perform at the Super Bowl—all while receiving treatment for a condition that's further aggravated by physical and psychological stress.
Allowing director Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York) to include the vulnerable footage of her battles with chronic pain is part of a natural evolution of how Gaga has used her platform to address stigmas around health issues like sexual assault and mental illness. In 2014, she revealed was raped at age 19 by a music producer twenty years her senior, an experience she wrote about in the Oscar-winning song, "Til It Happens to You," which was featured in the campus sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground. In 2016, she opened up about suffering from PTSD as a result of the pain from her injury.
Intimate moments throughout the film reflect this less-guarded version of Gaga, including a scene where she shares the title track from "Joanne" with her grandmother and father. The album is named after her aunt, a painter and poet who died from lupus at the age of 19. At her grandmother's home, Gaga finds one of Joanne's poems, which seems to fit a narrative for the niece she would never meet: Don't be fooled / I wear a mask / a thousand masks / so I play the game / the glittering but empty parade of the masks.
Although Five Foot Two is meant to give a glimpse into Gaga's personal life, as with pain, it's hard to tell what's real and what's performed—and whether there is even a meaningful distinction. The new Gaga, or at least the the marketing reinvention that has coincided with the years she spent battling physical and mental illness, indicates a shift toward authenticity. But she also just seems genuinely bored with costumes, high fashion, and glitz. (In one cringe-inducing scene, a sycophantic stylist describes Gaga's idea to tone her look down to a black t-shirt and shorts as "gold.")
Perhaps the best insight we get into her personal struggle comes alongside news about her breakup with fiancé Taylor Kinney, which she attributes in part to the demands of her career—a lifestyle that leaves her creatively fulfilled but lacking in the romance department. "Every night all these people will leave and then I'll be alone," she says. Despite its repeated effect on her body (and her love life), Gaga's longstanding devotion to her music does not waver. "They say sometimes it's like open-heart heart surgery, making music. It's invasive," she says. If pain is a necessary part of her performance, then sharing it with the world appears to be a big part of how she heals.
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