When Lady Gaga rolled into Toronto for TIFF 2017, she turned King St. into her own personal runway, stomping the full length of the barricaded street to a chorus of fans shouting, as they do almost everywhere she goes, “YAAAAS!!”
She was in full pop queen mode as she strutted into the festival premiere of her new documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, which hits Netflix on September 22. Draped in a long pink coat worthy of Stevie Nicks, she was serving fashion Gaga, as we’ve come to know her, with a face of fierce confidence.
On screen, a different, and much more human, Gaga emerged. Filming cinéma vérité-style, director Chris Moukarbel captured not only Lady Gaga, the Super Bowl-headlining superstar, but Stefani Germanotta, the good Italian girl.
Early on in Gaga’s career, her persona was full-time performance art. She insisted Lady Gaga was not a character; that her life and art were one. Under Moukarbel’s lens, she has at last shed that pretence and offered a peek into the domestic, even mundane, corners of her world.
The film has campy, lighthearted detours and a welcome helping of hot goss via Gaga addressing her long-simmering issues with Madonna (“Telling me you think I’m a piece of shit through the media? It’s like a guy passing me a note through his friend” is a standout quote from the doc), but its most powerful moments come when Gaga drops the pop mask and lays—occasionally literally—bare. She is undoubtedly still mostly id, as almost all superstars are, and still performative, but Gaga: Five Foot Two reveals shades of Gaga we haven’t seen before.
The day after the film’s TIFF bow (and yes, FLARE was there), we caught up with Moukarbel in Toronto to discuss Gaga’s rare mix of power and vulnerability, her relationships with men, and what it’s like to be a fly on the wall when Lady Gaga stops being Lady Gaga and starts to simply be.
Lady Gaga just saw the film for the first time. What was her reaction?
She just said thank you, but in the most lovely, heartfelt, teary-eyed way. It was actually so moving for me, because I had been with her for a year. I was sitting there [in the theatre], dying, thinking, What is she thinking about this? I kept looking over at her and she was laughing, she was crying; I could tell it was landing the way I would have hoped it would.
Gaga shows a lot of vulnerability in Five Foot Two. Typically we see her as such a powerful figure. How did you get her to show that side?
She’s just like that. She kind of forgot about me when I was shooting and that vulnerability just comes out. For her, it’s too much work to try to pretend to be one thing all of the time. Her real, true self is this mix of power and vulnerability and I really haven’t ever seen that in one person in that way.
She’s in a place in her life now, like she mentions in the movie, where she doesn’t give a f-ck anymore. She’s trying to find a place, a stride that she can continue on for the rest of her career where she can be happy. I think she realized the first part of her career was fun and fulfilling, but it took a toll and it wasn’t sustainable. I think now she’s figuring out how to continue to do the thing she loves to do, entertain people, without it suppressing her.
She speaks about her fraught relationships with straight men in the film. What did you make of her relationships with the men in her life?
She’s surrounded by a lot of gay men and by women—I think that’s a space she feels more comfortable in. I think her relationship with straight men is complicated, the way that it is, I believe, for a lot of women. She’s very close with her father and I think he maybe, to a certain degree, set the tone for a lot of her relationships. She’s talked about that a lot—she’s a daddy’s girl and she embraces that identity.
I think being a powerful woman and a successful woman is so difficult. It particularly takes a toll on your relationships and love life. Often—and I can’t really speak to this because I’m not a woman—but based on what I’ve seen being close to her and to the women in my life, that can be the first thing that’s compromised.
There are a lot of familial moments in the film. What was it like to be around her in those moments compared to her in full Gaga mode?
That’s really her identity, outside of being Lady Gaga on the internet or on television. She’s so connected with her family, they’re around all of the time. Her mother and her father go on tour with her a lot of the time and they’re so incredibly close—and her sister, too.
What a lot of other people in her position have been crushed under, she’s managed to sustain. When I was in her world, I realized it was because of her closeness to her family. They not only support her, but set her up with these tools, these values and these ways of coping.
Lady Gaga didn’t have say in the final edit of the film. What constraints did she put you under?
More than anything, she was sensitive to me filming or overhearing anything about someone else. She didn’t want to implicate someone who didn’t want to be on camera. If she was having a conversation about somebody or something was being said that related to someone that wasn’t in the room or who wasn’t directly involved in her world at the time, she would ask me to turn the camera off, which I thought was respectful. She didn’t want the camera overhearing or recording something private that wasn’t hers to share.
Before the premiere, you spoke about the power and influence Lady Gaga has over people, especially, girls and women. Can you expand on how you see her in that role?
She has so much power and such an enormous platform. She’s so aware of that, and I became very aware of it too, because she was. A lot of celebrities insist they’re not role models, they didn’t sign up to be role models, and that’s totally legit and I never assume anyone needs to take on any identity if they don’t want to, but there is a responsibility. If you’re asking people to pay to go to your concerts or buy your album or pay for movie tickets, whatever it is, there is an exchange, already, innately.
You’re not just making your art in a vacuum and if people find it, lucky them. Not in this medium. I feel like there’s an inherent responsibility, at least, you have in terms of recognizing that what you do may affect people’s lives and could impact them in a really bad way if you’re reckless with that power. She’s very aware of that and I respected that.
Tell me about your decision to include her talking about her long-rumoured feud with Madonna.
I absolutely wanted to include it from the beginning. It’s not like it’s salacious because I don’t think that it is; it wasn’t about being sensational. I felt, as she was saying it, that it was an opportunity to see what her values were and what kind of woman she was. I really respected how she laid it out. It wasn’t overly dramatic. She was just offhandedly saying this because it came up. It wasn’t like she was looking for an opportunity to say anything about Madonna. She clearly establishes that she respects her and that she’s influenced by her and kind of, I thought, described the way she treats people and how she personally would like to be treated.
For her, whether it’s Madonna or some fan who comes up and asks for an autograph, she does expect a certain amount of thoughtfulness and respect, the same as she’d give back. I thought she was being very fair.
The Teaser for Lady Gaga’s TIFF-Premiering Documentary Is Here and It’s Everything
We Take You Inside the Most Swish, Celeb-Filled TIFF 2017 Parties
All the Biggest, Most Stylin’ Stars on the TIFF 2017 Red Carpet