Basked in hot pink lights and dressed in embellished costumes inspired by their idol, thousands of self-named “Little Monsters” gathered in the Air Canada Center to see one of the best-selling music artists of all time. The backup dancers disperse and the smoke fades, and suddenly it’s just one woman, her glass piano, and her adoring audience that hang onto her every word. In the middle of playing one of her biggest hits Edge of Glory, Lady Gaga pauses the music to reflect on the moment she said goodbye to her best friend. It’s a moment that noticeably strikes her fans as the phones go down and the cheers diminish, and their undivided attention is given to this story of friendship, loss and grief. “I’ll never forget looking at one of my best friends in the eye and swearing to her that she was going to live forever,” Gaga says, her voice cracking with the memory. “And I knew she wasn’t.”
If you asked me who Lady Gaga is 7 years ago, I would say a pop singer best known for Just Dance, Pokerface and her outlandish fashion sense. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you her real name or where she’s from. As soon as she appeared on the music scene she was first and foremost Lady Gaga, a persona that seemed intriguing and talented but one that I always failed to relate to. It wasn’t until last year that the persona changed and the fashion clad pop queen became a more stripped back, country focused star who identified as Joanne. With the release of her hit single Million Reasons which is riddled with heartbreak and emotion, I finally felt a connection to this woman who suddenly wasn’t afraid to show her vulnerable side. In turn, her fans are completely unafraid to be vulnerable with her. During her concerts, same-sex couples unreservedly show affection for each other in the middle of the crowd as she sings Born This Way. Her fans proudly dance and cheer for their queen dressed provocatively and singing along to every lyric that means so much to them.
Although Gaga has always had a strong connection to her fans, her vulnerability and willingness to be open has taken new heights – a result from a string of tragedies and personal issues that have dominated her life in recent years. For the first time in her career Gaga has not only unreservedly shared her pain but also documented it in a Chris Moukarbel film titled Gaga: Five Foot Two, which he and Gaga debuted at TIFF two weeks ago. During the press release Gaga gets emotional as she talks about taking a break from music because of the chronic pain she’s enduring, an issue that she discusses at great length in her documentary.
A few days after her concert in Toronto Gaga takes the stage in the Princess Wales of Theatre. This time she faces a much more intimate audience yet the passion felt among the crowd is still just as prominent. Before her documentary premieres she once again takes her to piano and plays an acoustic version of her biggest hit, Bad Romance. Even though I just saw her play in an arena a few days before, hearing her incredible vocals in such an intimate setting is like I’m seeing her for the first time, and I have a feeling that the documentary that is about to premiere will have a similar effect on her adoring fans.
As the lights go down before the movie starts, the side door of the theatre opens and Gaga, surrounded by an entourage of about 10 men dressed in black is directed towards the middle of the audience to join her parents where she will watch the documentary for the first time. I can’t imagine how surreal this must be for diehard followers that have loved this woman for years, and I imagine it’s just as special for Gaga to watch this depiction of her life amongst her fans, anticipating their reaction.
The documentary opens on Gaga ascending towards the sky, preparing to jump from the roof NRG Stadium which was watched live on TV by 117.5 million viewers – the second most watched Superbowl ever. It’s a career defining moment which is so much of a culmination of her hard work that she can’t help but ask “where do I go from here?” The journey to the Superbowl, the making of Gaga’s album Joanne and her guest star appearance on American Horror Story are depicted wonderfully in the film, as well as Gaga’s flaws. Although her incredible hard work and dedication to her career are portrayed, Moukarbel is also not afraid to show her diva moments, her meltdowns on set, and the criticism that this noticeably different album faced as well as the success. Even in these moments she never fails to have a sense of humour, often mocking herself and proving her self-awareness.
What’s even more intriguing in this documentary are the issues that dominate Gaga’s personal life, issues that are both relatable and unimaginable. A large portion of the documentary focuses on Gaga’s health issues, such as her fibromyalgia which is a result from the traumatic pain she endured a few years ago from breaking her hip, leaving her with a condition that causes partial and full body spasms. A distraught Gaga lies on her couch in excruciating pain and she asks her assistant to “turn on Trump” on the news rather than taking her meds. “That’ll knock me out. That’ll traumatize me.” In another moment of the documentary, Gaga describes the heartbreak she endured after splitting up with her fiance Taylor Kinney, and the struggles that come with being successful – especially being a successful woman. In a powerful introspective moment in the documentary, Gaga says that a woman cannot have both success and love, “My love life has just imploded,” she says. “I sold 10 million (records) and lost Matt. I sold 30 million and lost Luke. I did a movie and lose Taylor. It’s like a turnover. This is the third time I’ve had my heart broken like this.” It’s refreshing to see Gaga in such an open and honest light as she describes the cost of fame and explains how it’s impacted her mentally. “I go from everyone touching me all day … to total silence.” Gaga is also unapologetic and unafraid to share her views on politics and feminism or to take her top off during a meeting. “Sorry, I’m just more comfortable now,” she says as she sits with her breasts fully on display to two members of her creative team.
In a particularly poignant part of the documentary, Gaga visits her grandmother to play her and her father the song “Joanne” for the first time. Gaga chose to name the album after her father’s late sister, Joanne Stefani Germanotta who died of lupus at the delicate age of 19. As she plays the track it is clear that both her grandmother and father are overwhelmed with emotion, as her father leaves the room and her grandmother simply says “that was beautiful”, with tears in her eyes. Gaga’s tales of her experience with grief are heart-wrenching and raw, and the delicate nature of this moment proves the transition in her art, music and her inner self as she wills herself to become more vulnerable and open with her life experiences.
After the movie, Gaga steps out on stage to reunite with Chris Moukarbel for the first time since seeing the movie for a Q&A session moderated by writer Darryl Pinckney. She is clearly overjoyed with Chris’s overall vision and documentation of her life, explaining during the question and answering session that she believes “this is such an authentic and real look into my life… It’s hard for me to say that it’s my announcement because it’s Chris’s film and it’s his announcement through me, observing me as a filmmaker and friend. I was very overwhelmed watching it by his compassion towards me and his love towards me.” With the release of Joanne, Gaga anticipated that this may not be the album her fans expect from her, but it’s clear that for her it’s a necessary and cathartic experience of introspective self-discovery. “As a woman, and for anyone, it’s important to be heard,” Gaga says during the last moments of the Q&A session. “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.”
This week Gaga announced that she will postpone the European leg of her tour due to her fibromyalgia, continuing to raise awareness of the condition and asking for her fans support. In today’s political climate it’s especially inspiring to see one of the world’s greatest artists step out from the limelight and show herself as she really is, unafraid to face her demons and willing to be unguarded. From seeing her speak so openly at her concert and seeing her personal life in her documentary, I can’t help but think that this is the kind of honesty we need from our world leaders – the kind of vulnerability that translates into strength.
Gaga: Five Foot Two will be released on Netflix on September 22nd.