Less than 10 minutes into the 100-minute “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” a cinéma vérité-style documentary about Lady Gaga that emulates Madonna’s 1991 documentary “Truth or Dare,” the “Poker Face” pop star complains that she’s been unfairly accused of stealing Madonna’s style and sound.
“I could never wrap my head around the fact [that Madonna] wouldn’t look me in the eye and tell me I was reductive. I saw it on TV,” says Gaga (a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta), in a film so similar to that other film you have to wonder if Gaga isn’t aiming for another publicity-generating admonishment from Madge.
Ample massage-table scenes: Check. Pep talks with her dancers before the big show: Check. Traveling in chauffeur-driven cars and private planes chock full of makeup artists, hair stylists and handlers: Check. Feelings of loneliness expressed from a fabulous hotel room: Check.
But what in pop music — or any entertainment medium, for that matter — is entirely original? Like a vintage clothing store, artists take what’s been worn before and reassemble it into a new fashion, informed by their own individual sense of style.
The problem with “Five Foot Two,” which arrives Friday on Netflix and in theaters, is that it’s a disjointed pastiche of generic pop-star clichés. Unless you’re already a die-hard fan, it doesn’t provide enough insight to explain why viewers should see this film now — other than to promote a new phase of Gaga’s career — and why we should care about the woman behind those catchy hits.
Directed by visual artist Chris Moukarbel and co-produced by Gaga, the film focuses on the year surrounding the release of her last album, “Joanne,” and her 2017 Super Bowl halftime performance in February.
It was a reboot period of sorts for the artist. In the film she expresses her desire to drop some of the theatrics that made her a name nearly a decade ago — the flamboyant costumes such as the meat dress, the flashy pop sound — and head in a more personal direction with her style and sound.
What she doesn’t say in the film is that the revamp was also necessary for survival: Gaga’s career showed signs of flagging after her meteoric rise to fame. She came out of an era when young women such as Kesha found fame through the dance pop hits they made with older, accomplished male producers such as Dr. Luke.
Gaga, however, created a niche all her own: she cast herself as an outcast, a performer who deviated from the usual glamour game by making herself “ugly.” The fright wigs, the prosthetic body humps, the melting makeup. The idea was that girls shouldn’t have to be “pretty” to make their mark. It was a rallying cry for self-proclaimed misfits, and it attracted a huge audience whose bond with the singer is personal.
But as times changed and her shtick didn’t, a new approach was needed. And as an artist, she naturally wanted to grow. Thus the new, stripped-down album inspired by the legacy of an aunt who died before she was born, and the move into acting. She has a leading role in the forthcoming “A Star Is Born” remake, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper.
Coincidentally, the film is mentioned less than five minutes into “Five Foot Two,” when she’s asked why there are dozens of star-shaped, Mylar balloons lining the staircase of her mansion. “Oh, Warner Bros. green-lit a movie,” she says casually, as she climbs the stairs in low-slung sweat pants. “Bradley wanted me to be in it ... I’m gonna star in the movie.”
These sorts of lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous scenes could be great and even revealing if balanced with deeper insight into the lady behind the fame, but that doesn’t happen here often enough.
It’s clear she’s in physical and mental pain caused by debilitating bouts of what she describes as horrible muscle spasms. (She has since revealed via social media that she’s been diagnosed with fibromyalgia). In one scene, Gaga is convalescing on a couch or bed, covered in ice packs, tears rolling down her face from the pain. You feel the pain. You suffer with her.
Other meaningful moments: her heartbroken comments about a recent breakup with her fiancé, “Chicago Fire” star Taylor Kinney; a moving scene with her grandmother where they revisit the death of Aunt Joanne. But they are outliers in a film predominantly made up of purposeless material.
Subject matter that should be substantial is rendered cliché by the shallow way in which it’s handled: Gaga talks about the rigors of trying to be taken seriously in a male-dominated industry, but the film never illustrates how she overcame those challenges. How was she brought up? How did she gravitate toward music? What made her who she is? And who is she?
Stilted talks between the singer and her crew about her boy problems, her hopes for her new album and the love she has of her fans feel like clumsy setups. “Candid” moments in the kitchen feel staged, and even then, they’re dull.
Madonna’s “Truth or Dare” was also an orchestrated look into the singer’s life. Did we get to know a lot about Madonna? No, only what she wanted us to know. It was another rehearsed show, but done with her knack for entertaining while provoking. Engineered entertainment, clean and precise, a production that had fun with its own vapid nature.
“Five Foot Two” is too amateurish to do any of that, let alone cut its own path. A star isn’t born here, she’s diminished.
‘Gaga: Five Foot Two’
When: Anytime starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)