Lady Gaga’s official debut on the fall festival scene dripped with the pop icon’s undying commitment to her craft, as the arrival of her new Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two was heralded by the power of her signature, soaring vocals and the inherent electricity of good old-fashioned Hollywood showmanship.
The singer-songwriter took the stage Friday evening at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, belting a stripped, piano-driven version of her 2009 hit “Bad Romance” before the world premiere of the film, directed by Chris Moukarbel, made a solid case for its consideration among the likes of Asif Kapadia’s Amy and Alex Keshishian’s Madonna: Truth or Dare as one of the most sincere, spectacularly candid portraits of an artist’s life and ever evolving legacy.
From the dissolution of her engagement to the highly personal creation of her fifth studio album, Joanne, Gaga’s life seemingly unfolds without prompt or provocation from the woman at its center. The film offers a raw, unfiltered examination of an artist in her element, and the moments of tension, strife, playful contradictions, and fist-pounding-on-the-floor moments that often buzz behind the facade of the greatest in the game, though the whole thing plays as calmly as a delicately whispered secret.
Whether he’s letting us share in the surreal emotions coursing through the moment Gaga plays the album’s title track, inspired by the death of her 19-year-old aunt, for her grandmother for the first time, or following the superstar while she purchases copies of her own album at Walmart, or observes a particularly haunting, hospital-set sequence where a makeup artist paints Gaga’s face at the same time doctors stick needles and tubes into her back, Moukarbel’s vérité approach eliminates the all-too-familiar feeling of rigidity often found in music documentaries. The footage he captures plays freely and effortlessly across the film’s 100-minute runtime, even when what’s unfolding on screen feels larger than life, like when Florence Welch joins Gaga in the studio to work on a Joanne album cut, or Mother Monster preps for her Super Bowl LI halftime show on one of the biggest stages in the world. His perspective is grounded and compassionate, registering less like a fly on the wall and more like an informed observer, drinking up his surroundings without getting so drunk on the lady’s innately transfixing presence.
“[I] draw boundaries in business, draw boundaries in family and friendship, draw boundaries with the world,” Gaga told the audience when asked about the taxing emotional compartmentalization the film shows during the post-screening Q&A, moderated by writer Darryl Pinckney, who appears in one of the most powerful scenes of the film, which sees Gaga receiving news that the cancer prognosis of a close friend, Sonja Durham, hasn’t improved, shortly before she’s set to have a sit-down with the prolific journalist for a New York Times profile. “To have a protection over myself and my body and who I am is my right, and I deserve that. As a woman, and for anyone, it’s important to be heard. The worst thing that can happen, and it can happen very easily, is you can be told ‘no’ and rejected over and over again that you begin to shut down and forget how valuable you truly are.”
Though she previously confirmed to EW she has begun writing material for her upcoming sixth studio album, during the Five Foot Two press conference earlier Friday, Gaga announced plans to take a break before the release of her upcoming musical drama A Star Is Born, co-starring and directed by Bradley Cooper, hits theaters next September — a topic also lightly covered in the film, which began shooting in June 2016 and lasted through February’s Super Bowl Halftime Show performance.
“I’m going to take a rest,” she said of the year ahead. “I don’t know how long. That doesn’t mean I won’t be creating. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some things up my sleeve, but I’m not going to tell you today. I’m looking forward to reflecting and slowing down for a moment and healing, because that’s important.”
Gaga: Five Foot Two will be released Sept. 22 on Netflix. Watch Gaga’s performance of “Bad Romance” at the Toronto International Film Festival above.