In a lot of ways, Lady Gaga’s new Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, is your standard pop star documentary, in the vein of Madonna’s Truth or Dare or Katy Perry’s Part of Me. It follows her around as she’s writing and recording songs and music videos for her album Joanne, and preparing for concert appearances (including her performance at Super Bowl XLI). There are glimpses of her family life, and Lady Gaga, or in this case, regular old Stefani Germanotta, attends a baptism as the godmother to one of her bandmates’ babies. You meet her parents and grandparents. All standard celebrity documentary material.
What sets Gaga: Five Foot Two apart is Lady Gaga’s willingness to put her struggle with chronic pain, specifically her fibromyalgia, front and center in her story. In fact, the whole doc is shot through with pain and trauma, and the struggle to maintain not just her sanity but continue to function at a high level. The film opens with Gaga getting out of bed and getting a treatment for her hip pain. So right away we know that pain is going to be front and center.
About 38 minutes into the film, after a moving scene in which Gaga plays a song for her father and grandmother, we see her in a full blown fibro flare, which at the time of the filming was undiagnosed. We see Lady Gaga, lying on the couch under a towel, crying, describing “the entire right side of my body in a spasm.” It’s powerful, and something that every person with fibromyalgia has gone through. She even acknowledges, to her credit, I think, how her privilege as a massively famous and wealthy entertainer allows her access to constant and excellent healthcare. “I think of other people that have, maybe something like this, but that are struggling to figure out what it is, and don’t have the money to have someone help them,” she says. “And I don’t know what I’d do without all these people to help me. What the hell would I do?”
It’s a good question and one that many, if not most, people with fibromyalgia ask themselves on a daily basis. We know how hard it is to get a doctor to take it seriously, how stigmatized chronic pain is. And most people don’t have millions of dollars and nurses as part of their entourage. But it’s still pretty amazing to see her go from that to performing a lights-out rendition of “Bad Romance” for Tony Bennett’s birthday just hours later.
Next, we get a montage of her working, squeezing past paparazzi, recording radio station greetings, surprising fans. In a way it’s inspiring, to see someone go from being in so much pain to being non-stop “on” for an adoring, voracious public. Again, this is all standard celebrity pop star stuff: Gaga dealing with a public breakup, worrying about whether her long-time fans will like her new look, will the record be any good?
But it’s the fibro stuff that sticks with you. We see her visiting her doctor, listing her symptoms and medications. This is one of those “Stars, they’re just like us” moments that celebrities try to pull off, and not always successfully. But Lady Gaga manages to do it. She gets a trigger point injection and we get to see it, all the while she’s stressing out because the new album is leaking all over the internet.
“Awareness” is one of those weird terms that gets thrown around a lot for diseases like fibromyalgia, and I’m not always sure it’s enough for people to just be “aware” that something exists. But Lady Gaga’s decision to show herself in so much pain, and to let us into her doctor’s office with her, seems to be doing more than just raising awareness. It really can chip away at the stigma of these chronic conditions. Nobody could ever, watch Lady Gaga go through her preparations for performing at the Super Bowl, and call her “lazy,” which is a common slur thrown at people with chronic pain conditions. I suppose there are some who might look at this and say, “Well, if Lady Gaga can do it, why can’t you get out of bed?”
But completely misses the point. As Gaga herself points out, she has a lot of money to pay for world-class medical care, money that not everybody has. But there’s also a vulnerability that she shows that a lot of celebrities of her stature wouldn’t, and that’s a big deal.
Definitely watch the movie, especially if you’re a fan. But even if you’re not, it’s still an important film, for showing fibromyalgia in such an intimate setting.