Pop star documentaries are a tricky art form: both star and director have to balance glam performance, on stage and off, with emotional cadence, and make an intriguing enough plot out of real life, all while appearing simultaneously authentic and out of this world. They all take different approaches. Some, like Madonna's Truth or Dare and Nicki Minaj's My Truth, showcase the business-minded and behind-the-curtain facets of their stars at a world-dominating peak, warts and all, while others like Katy Perry's Part Of Me and Justin Bieber's Believe attempt to paint a picture of who they are through the lens of otherwise impersonal but uber-fun concerts. The newest entry in this very specific canon, Gaga: Five Foot Two, streaming now on Netflix, does all and none of these things simultaneously.
Filmed within an eight-month period between her preparations for Joanne and her iconic Super Bowl Halftime Show moment, Five Foot Two places a single lens on Lady Gaga and follows her the entire time. There may be other people in the room, but the camera virtually never leaves her side, and it doesn't need to. It captures outside perspectives just by filming them with her. Most pop star docs are at least minutely aware of the line between public and private, but Five Foot Two crosses that line more than any of its predecessors (save for possibly Britney's For the Record), allowing us in the room while Gaga struggles through a bad day with her chronic pain and into her grandma's home as she shows her the song written about her late daughter.
Director Chris Moukarbel's unique approach allowed us to get this genuinely personal look into one of the biggest artists of our generation. Gaga is never shown in a diva-like or unflattering light as Madge and Minaj arguably were in their respective projects, which could raise questions about its authenticity, but those questions also would be a disservice to the doc. Few thus far have gotten as intimate or revealed as much about the star as Gaga: Five Foot Two, which may not have been possible without Moukarbel's approach and Gaga's surprising creative sacrifice. We talked to Mourkarbel about working with Gaga, some of the film's more surprising moments, and how he made this eye-opening documentary come to life.
How did you get involved in the project?
I got involved through her manager. He had been saying for a long time that he wanted to do a film around her, but there was no urgency around it. They talked about it, but it wasn't like they were shopping for directors or anything like that. She was, to be honest, kind of reluctant to do a film. She was really focused on writing and being in the studio, and wanted to make sure she wasn't distracted. The way I described my approach was really this sort of verité-style idea, that I just film this period of her life and not open up the scope to her past or talking heads. Just keep the camera on her, keeping it close, and just creating a portrait of what was happening in the moment. And they thought that it was cool, they thought it was an interesting approach to it. So I just basically sat with her at her place and just started rolling, and she was very intuitive, and she felt like she could work with me. I didn't want to have too many expectations of what it would be because she was just going to be doing her thing, so I followed her around that day and that became the first scene of the movie.
Why did you decide to go that route and keep it from one perspective? Why didn't you do interviews with her or people around her?
I just thought it was really interesting, and it's such a can of worms once you start opening it up to her past. I mean, she's done so much, where do you even begin? I wanted to, in an hour and a half, hour and 40 minutes, be able to create a portrait of someone I just found fascinating. And for me, it became clear that the best way to approach that was to really keep the frame tight and keep it narrow, and in that respect, getting as much out of what's happening in her present and understanding what it's for.
What made you want to do this project? What made Gaga the perfect star to film?
I've always been interested in pop music, and for that reason, I've always been drawn to her because she's such a great pop star in so many ways. I just remember when she first came out on the scene, I was totally taken by her. I feel like she was first pop star of the social media era. Madonna was known for changing her identity, her look per album cycle, and that is relevant cause at that time, Gaga was just doing it every day. She was creating daily content for the blogs by just walking from a door to her car, and treating that walk as her runway, and I thought that was really cool. And the music, I just always connected with it. I think she's an incredibly talented songwriter.
Why was now a good moment to shoot this documentary?
I don't know what her life was like before, all I can really speak to is what I saw and my experience. I have a feeling her life is always really interesting and I think that there's a whiplash to her every single day. I think that this time, a lot happened over the past year for her. She was definitely going through a lot. When I started with her, she was writing this record and it didn't even have a title at that point. The Super Bowl wasn't even on the horizon. So it's interesting to really watch her pivot so many different times over the course of the eight months that I was shooting with her.
The film really switches between intimate and emotional moments, and more action-packed, intense scenes really quickly. How did you find a balance between the two?
It's interesting, because I noticed as I was cutting the movie how my camera and my relationship with the camera changed over the course of shooting. At the beginning, it's very close. The first month, she's there in physical therapy and we're inches away from her face, and as her life gets bigger and more complicated, and as the demands of her career start to take over, it kind of pushes me out and we're almost never alone. Throughout the film, you realize there's always hands on her, she's always being touched, and that's a necessity of what she does. In the movie, she's just this little speck in the sky at the Super Bowl, and at that point, she just belonged to the world, she's on the world stage.
What was the most interesting thing for you to shoot?
I really enjoyed shooting all the music video shoots and watching them produce that, how that comes together, how involved she is in that process. I mean, she's involved with building that from the ground up. Watching her work in the studio and then watching her work as a creative and crafting her image and trying on all those hats was just fascinating.
The film gets a lot more personal than many music films do. How did you manage that balance between rawness without crossing the line?
I told her from the beginning that I would just shoot everything that I saw, and if she wanted me to shut the camera off, I would. It was clear that she had agency. It was very rare for her to ask me to turn the camera off. And usually it was because it involved someone who wasn't there, whether someone else was being discussed or it involved anyone who didn't consent to be a part of the film. She was sensitive to make sure that didn't end up on camera. Often times, she really did let me roll, and kind of trusted it. She didn't see the film until the premiere, so she gave me a lot of creative freedom to make this thing. It was sort of shocking for me.
How did you convince her to give you that trust?
She's a purist in what she does, whether she's acting or writing music. I think for her to participate in something like this and for it to be worth her while, I think she knew that she had to remove herself from the process creatively. I thought she would watch the film, I was expecting to get notes from her and have to negotiate certain creative aspects of it, and it never happened. At one point, it was really freaking me out because I thought the other shoe had dropped at the last minute, and it didn't. She felt that she couldn't be objective about herself. Some friends of hers had seen the film at a later cut, and they thought it was beautiful and they endorsed it, and she went with that. It's a really rare thing for someone in her position to relinquish control, but she did and I think it made for a better movie.
Was there anything off-limits beforehand?
Mostly, if we turned the camera off, it was because she didn't want anyone else to be implicated or hurt, or anyone to feel bad. Things about her relationship she didn't want to discuss on camera because Taylor wasn't there and couldn't really represent his side. She felt strongly about that. Although there are mentions of the breakup in the film, it wasn't something she really wanted to dig into.
We saw a lot of Gaga dealing with her chronic pain, which is something that she has now been opening up about a lot. Why did you decide to make that a recurring theme of the film?
That was one of the few things she wanted to be in the movie. She gave us so much freedom creatively, but that was one thing she felt that she'd like to see in there. She's always looking to see how she can use her platform to put out a positive message and I think, from her perspective, there's a lot of people that struggle with very similar things, and if they saw her and realized that with all of her resources and everything that she's still struggling with it, it would possibly help other people in their endeavor.
The other thing that was shocking was that she opened up about the Madonna situation.
I was surprised; I thought it was pretty cool. I think it's treated in a much more salacious way in the press. But at the time, she was talking about it in the context of how her and her work has been influenced by other people and how it was mistaken as ripping people off when really she meant certain things as a way to honor work that's come before her, and a lot of pop songs do that. With Madonna, basically, she felt like Madonna could have handled it differently and it didn't need to turn into something quite so nasty.
On that Madonna note, obviously she released Truth or Dare years ago, one of the most iconic music documentaries. Did you take any cues from that or any other music film, or did you try to avoid them completely?
You know, Truth or Dare was such an important and pivotal moment for documentary film, and it definitely influenced me when I was young. There were no documentaries like that, and there was no reality television before that film, so it was coming into the world at a time when people had never seen how real people were, or at least how they presented themselves. Even little things like the fact that Madonna drank Evian water was a huge deal for people watching. And now, I think, none of that would've made an impact. But I love that film, I think it's a benchmark.
I have to say, I intentionally avoided things that referenced Truth or Dare in what I was doing. I felt that it was very important to create something that looked and felt completely different, which I think we did. Gaga's such a different person from Madonna, despite the fact that they're constantly being compared. And I feel like this is a completely different style.
Were there any moments when you were filming that were tough to watch, or you didn't know if you should be filming?
That visit to the clinic where she does the trigger point therapy and they're putting the needles in her back, that was really hard. It was hard to be there for, it was hard to watch. She was obviously in a lot of pain and the treatment was also very painful for her. But it's something we talked about, and she felt like it needed to be included in the film, and I tried to be in that space respectfully and shoot it in a respectful way.
Was there anything left on the cutting room floor that you regret not including, or that you wished you shot more of?
Not really, to be honest. I just shot so much, I shot hundreds of hours of footage, and in the end, I feel really good about everything that made it into the movie. I don't feel like I had to cut anything for time necessarily. Really, you end up with a lot of repeating themes and repeating moments and scenes, things you maybe don't need to repeat. I found that if anything, I was trying to create another story.
If you could do this style of movie with any other person, who would it be?
I don't think I would do another film like this. It was something that I really wanted to make a movie about, a pop musician, and I don't know where to take it from here. I think Gaga set the bar. I'm always going to explore similar themes. I'm interested in identity and identity politics in performance, authenticity -- these are all themes that will end up in other projects that I do, but I don't think I'll do a doc about someone like her again.
What is next for you then?
I don't know, to be honest. I'm looking at scripts, I'm thinking about a few different broad documentary ideas, but they're just in such early form. I really just finished this film a couple weeks ago, so I'm still kind of coming off of that. I need a break.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images courtesy of Netflix.