A Lady Gaga outfit can mean a lot of things: an artistic statement, a conversation starter, a fashion faux pas. But it’s also a shield, a way to deflect attention from the person wearing it. For Lady Gaga, who has made headlines by wearing a meat dress, cross-dressing as alter ego Jo Calderone, and “incubating” in an egg for an alleged three days, it was a way to control the conversation. With her fifth album, 2016’s Joanne, that conversation changed.
“There’s this assumption that she’s so in control of everything because of the way she presents,” says Chris Moukarbel, director of the documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, which captures the making of Joanne and premieres Sept. 22 on Netflix. “For someone like her to let go of some of that, in order to make something that she wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, is rare.”
With Joanne, which debuted atop the Billboard 200 last October, Gaga did away with artifice. The pop star stripped down to jeans and a t-shirt, named the record for her aunt who died at the age of 19 in 1974 and let Moukarbel (who also helmed the 2014 doc Banksy Does New York) chronicle her rawest moments during the recording process, from battling chronic pain to splitting with then-fiance Taylor Kinney.
The film reaches an apex during a key scene that takes place at the end of a taxing day. Gaga receives a phone call from a cancer-stricken friend, and later joins her father, Joe Germanotta, at her grandmother’s nursing home to play her grandmother the album’s title track — a tribute to her deceased daughter. Tears stream down Gaga’s face as her dad, overcome with emotion, steps out of the room during the visit.
The scene almost didn’t happen. “We were on our way to the airport,” recalls Moukarbel. “She knew that we were within 25 minutes of her grandmother’s nursing home, so she asked if we could go there. She wanted to bring her flowers, because her dad was going to be with her and she thought it would be nice. I wasn’t expecting it.”
The result is an intimate single-camera shot that moves from Gaga’s grandmother’s face to her father to Gaga, who plays the song on her cellphone. “I realized I just wanted it to be vérité, just sort of fly-on-the-wall style,” says Moukarbel, “because with someone like her, we’re so used to seeing her surrounded by cameras, highly conceptualized.”
Moukarbel used a lens from the 1960s that required him to move closer to a subject to pull focus. The result is an up-close, emotional moment among three generations.
“That scene sets an example of when [the film] really works,” he says. “With all the insane accomplishments she has had, it’s almost more interesting to have a look at the humanity in there.”