How Lady Gaga Captured America's Queer Imagination
For gay men, Chris Moukarbel's new documentary about Mother Monster triggers strong emotions and memories about growing up with Gaga.
A still from Gaga: Five Foot Two. Photo via Netflix
There's a startling sequence in Gaga: Five Foot Two, a documentary about the life and career of Lady Gaga released Friday on Netflix. The scene has stuck with me since I first saw it last spring. In it, we see Gaga exit a recording studio and head toward an idling Escalade. She's overtaken by a horde of screaming fans. Suddenly, a quick cut montage of Gaga exiting studios, airplanes, and concerts throughout her career flashes by. From The Fame Monster to Joanne, we see the same horde of fans inundate her over and over again. Some scream a syncopated "Ga! Ga!" while others invoke the popular "Slay, Gaga!" And there's always one screaming "Mama! Mommy!" In the course of seconds, director Chris Moukarbel shows the world what Mother Monster has always meant to her fans, especially her queer ones.
Few musicians have created the kind of intense cult of personality that Lady Gaga has. And whether it's due to the way she's warped pop star conventions or how she's embodied (and destroyed) the idea of camp, fewer still have a queer fanbase as dedicated as Stefani Germanotta.
Over drinks at Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with two men who were essential to bringing Gaga: Five Foot Two to life: Moukarbel, who previously directed Me at the Zoo; and Bobby Campbell, Gaga's manager. We talked about Gaga and what it means to be a queer man absorbed in her world.
VICE: This documentary didn't start off as this big, expansive project, right? It was initially supposed to be recording her in the studio?
Chris Moukarbel: Right. It wasn't going to be this big portrait of her as a person. We approached this as a casual thing—her process in the studio and all that. I think that's what helped her get on board, too. From my perspective, it was always going to be a lot more than that, but that was my own private agenda. I didn't know if we were going to be able to take it there.
Bobby Campbell: Well, I'll tell you now, and this is something I've never shared with you: She had talked about doing a documentary the year before you came in, but there weren't any firm plans around it. And as you guys started to suggest that this could be more than what we initially thought it could be, I was so on board for that. But I just wanted to play hard to get I guess.
What's so funny about that is that as someone who grew up with Gaga as the patron saint of the tortured queer artist, I thought that part of the attraction to Chris for this was the fact that he's this gay Yale School of Art boy.
Chris: I don't think she ever processed my resume like that.
Bobby: She definitely did not.
Chris: She's so intuitive.
But do you think part of what made her comfortable enough to do this project was a sort of queer sensitivity?
Chris: Bobby, you said this early on, and obviously it became apparent once I started working with you guys—her close inner circle is mostly women and gay men. So the fact that I'm gay I'm sure made it more comfortable for her to work with me. Maybe we didn't know exactly what we were making, but I think me being queer already lined me up with her sensibility.
Bobby: Yeah, I agree. I think that's part of why I felt she would be comfortable with you, Chris. She's talked a lot about how the gay men in her life have helped shape her as a woman or helped her become a woman. In a large way, that's also part of the reason that she really gave herself to this process. The first time she saw the final film was with everyone else here at Toronto International Film Festival. She ultimately trusted me, her stylist Brandon Maxwell who has been working with us for almost a decade, and of course Chris to know we would be signing off on a future that was being painted of her—even if it did have vulnerabilities and things that might be scary for her. Because she can trust and know that the gay men in her life have her back to the end of time.
What do you think your sensibility brought to this film?
Chris: Well, I think my entire life and throughout my childhood, so much of my identity has been shaped by women in media. I mean, that's who I looked to. I don't understand what a gay or queer sensibility is. I don't know where it comes from. But I do ask myself sometimes why as a kid living in the suburbs of Connecticut, a child of Lebanese immigrants, I became obsessed with Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz at five years old. I couldn't get over it after the first time I saw it and I was obsessed with the ruby slippers and all these signifiers that are considered traditionally gay, classically gay. But how the hell could I have possibly known that, you know? It's some memetic memory, some predisposition. It's almost like if there's a gay gene—it's somehow tied into a certain kind of woman, and I've found those women my whole life. It's apparent that Gaga is one of those women. And I think she always was, right out of the gate. Right when she hatched. She was alway gonna be held really close to the hearts of gay people and part of this tradition that nobody is really able to explain.
Bobby: I've grown up working with her. I've been working with her for almost ten years. But you know—a funny thing for me, with Chris talking about worshipping Judy Garland since he was five—Britney Spears was always my queen, since age 13. I'm a true fan of that iconic sort of pop queen, and I think that informed a lot of who I am today. Somehow by some miracle I've found myself getting to work with my own pop queen. It's also like I get to deliver to millions of kids all around the world what Brittney did to me at 14. For me, that's the ultimate blessing in all of this.
The montages in the film take the viewer through the different iterations of Gaga's career. How conscious or un-conscious have those new identities been for her?
Bobby: From my perspective, it's this weird clash of being totally intentional in every little detail while also being completely authentic to who and where she is at that time. With Joanne for instance, people talk a lot about it being her coming back to her roots. But her roots aren't from the country. She has family from West Virginia, but her roots aren't there. She was born and raised in New York City. But at that time, who she felt like as a woman happened to be just that.
I think that from the very beginning—whether it's her in some crazy outfit or just a jeans and T-shirt—she's always managed to express what she's feeling. Each generation of her career becomes a cloak or shield she uses to relate to the world. And what I love about this film is that you get to learn a bit about all that. There's always a reason behind everything she does. For her, it's not always intentional. It's her revealing who she really is.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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- Bobby Campbell