My thoughts on Lady Gaga’s documentary & chronic illness

dSavannah note: Yes, this is my first post in a long time. Yes, there are probably errors. Everything sounds great in my head, and then I go to write it out, and my brain drops out and my eyes cross and my back spasms and the words turn to mush. (A fun benefit of having a chronic illness.)


I’ll admit: I’ve never really been a fan of Lady Gaga. I’ve never actively disliked her either, but I never really cared for her or her crazy persona with the wild outfits and wigs, or her pop music (I’m more a blues, alternative, rock – and occasionally rap – girl).

Lady Gaga at a doctor's office; from the Netflix documentary Five Foot Two.

Lady Gaga at a doctor’s office; from the Netflix documentary Five Foot Two.

But the chronic illness community has been talking about Lady Gaga’s documentary, now streaming on Netflix, and how she opens up about chronic pain and how great the movie is.

So, I watched it.

And… erm… well…

Please note that there are easily spoilers in my “review” here, so if you’re concerned about that sort of thing, stop reading here.

Essentially, per all of the samey-samey articles I read after I watched the documentary, Five Foot Two (a nod to the celebrity’s height) follows Lady Gaga around for eight months while she’s writing, recording, and releasing her “family” album Joanne and on her way to performing at the Super Bowl. It’s (theoretically) unscripted and she let the director have “unprecedented access” to her life.

We see her without makeup and crazy hair, we see her creating her album in the studio, we see her dancing; we also see her driving expensive cars, living in expensive houses, see her followed by paparazzi and fans in New York; see slews of people surrounding her, so many it’s impossible to keep track; see her endlessly endlessly having makeup put on.

But the reason I watched was to see her show her chronic pain, and see if the movie really “raises awareness” as she said she wanted it to do in a tweet after the movie had long wrapped:

I don’t think it really does, tho it touches on it.

Various rambling thoughts:

  • There’s no framing, no context, for much of the film. You have to know who she is; it probably helps if you already know that she’s ill; you probably need to understand what a media tour is… so much is never explained.
  • We don’t get introduced to Gaga’s chronic pain until about 40 minutes into the movie. We are never told what she has, or even explicitly that she has chronic pain. We don’t really understand what treatments she’s getting, although there’s a scene early on where’s she’s getting a massage, a scene where she has a shot into her butt, and a scene where’s she’s in some sort of contraption – but it could just as easily be tanning bed as anything else. We don’t know.
  • All of the people caring for her, making her food, massaging her, stretching out her hip, putting on her makeup, etc. are nameless. For all we know, she’s just getting her face massaged by an assistant because she wants one, not because she’s in pain, and certainly not if the person is a physical therapist, a massage therapist, or something else entirely. HOWEVER, the people on her team (manager, parents, creative director) are named.
  • Although someone on her team (Sonja Durham) has cancer, we don’t really see Gaga’s reaction to the woman’s very serious illness – other than a half-sobbed “everyone in my life leaves me” after a phone call. The intersection of the pain suffered by Sonja and the pain suffered by Gaga would have been an interesting study. (Sadly, Sonja died in May of this year.)
  • The articles generally say that Gaga’s illness and pain started from a when she broke her hip, when that isn’t the case, according to her in the movie: she felt ill, and then she broke her hip. There is a distinct difference in modalities and treatment, tho I guess ultimately the result is the same. (And yes, it makes a difference to me, for some reason.)
  • Everyone’s pain journey is different. We never see Gaga unable to walk, as I am many days. We never see her gasp in pain as she tries to go about her life. We see her dancing, and walking normally, and talking, and doing “normal” things. That does not mean her pain doesn’t exist, or that it is lesser than mine (or yours). It just means it is different.
  • The movie spends most of its focus on her as a celebrity – dancing, rehearsing, filming a music video, performing at Tony Bennett’s birthday party, prepping for her Superbowl appearance, getting into makeup for a shoot on American Horror Story and rehearsing her lines. This is all okay, but it’s hardly a rallying cry for *most* people with chronic illness, who can barely cope or move, let alone work.
  • There are very poignant scenes about her illness that are relatable to those with chronic illness. We see her crying as she’s being worked on, her body manipulated. In pretty long scene where’s she’s at doctor’s office to get trigger point injections for the pain, she remarks that most people think she should just take an advil and aleve, and how ridiculous that is. (It is. It really is.)
  • In the first scene that really shows her in pain, she says “what do people do who don’t have quick money to have people help them?” Well, Lady Gaga, we suffer. A lot. We lose our friends, our families, our jobs, our careers, our lives. We become homeless. We kill ourselves.
  • Joanne is about the singer’s aunt, who died at age 19 of Lupus. The viewer is left to their own conclusion about Gaga’s illness and its connection to her aunt’s illness, or how she personally connects to it.
  • The movie is visually pretty, with interesting lighting and angles and shots. But the visual often doesn’t have context, and we don’t necessarily know what we’re looking at.

I was fascinated by the film and watched it to the end. But, ultimately, Five Foot Two is a love letter from the director to Lady Gaga. (Reportedly, he decided, without her input, what to include from the thousands of hours he shot.) It shows her as human, like the rest of us. But it just dances and touches on various topics – feminism, the difficulty of being a woman in the entertainment industry, the difficulties of fame, and of course, what it’s like to have a chronic illness.

More ramblings / other posts you might want to read...

dSavannah

About dSavannah

#InvisibleIllnessWarrior #feminist | Multi-disciplinary #creative #artist #writer #editor #reader #reviewer | Makes things | Shoots things (with camera)
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8 Responses to My thoughts on Lady Gaga’s documentary & chronic illness

  1. Your words are perfect and bang on.

  2. Elaine LeDoux says:

    I’m glad you reviewed the Lady Gaga movie. I will not be watching it. As I’ve told you before, my daughter who I dearly love has Lupus. I’ve seen her suffer terribly and nothing is worse for a mother. Her first baby died at 4 days old because the Lupus wasn’t being treated properly during her pregnancy. When you said Lady Gaga’s aunt died of Lupus at 19 it freaked me out. Fortunately she is in remission and has been for many years now, but it’s always in the back of my mind. You should know that she had symptoms like acute knee pain, leg pain and unequal pupils ( which is totally a sign of something serious) but the docs kept poo-pooing me. It took years and years for her to be properly diagnosed because her blood work kept coming back as normal. So, my point is they will never make a movie about her life and pay her the big bucks and they will never make a movie about your life and pay you the big bucks! Most people who suffer do not get notoriety for it. It may have been her intention to give voices to all those people in some way but it sounds like a fail! Love you!

    • dSavannah dSavannah says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      FYI, Joanne (her aunt) died 40 years ago, before they really knew what lupus was. (I doubt that makes it any better, since lupus is still so difficult to diagnose.)

      And yes, it is awful to have to watch your daughter suffer. And to lose a grand-child too! There are no words…

      And sooo many people have to fight for a diagnosis. It’s ridiculous. And, it’s absolutely exhausting.

      And yes, if that was Lady Gaga’s intent, it felt like a fail to me too.

      Love to you! <3

  3. jlgentry says:

    Thank you Sav. I treasure your insights. As always, you are balanced and thoughtful.

  4. Sybylla Demontagna says:

    I watched this having fallen in love with Gagas performance in American Horror Story, and it came across as a kind of extended pop video, a notice board splattered with images, always jumping on… Obviously says far more about being a diva than being ill, there is enough footage of her suffering, and the measures she takes, injections etc to demonstrate that she suffers, so it becomes part of her myth, that’s all. The suggestion she is raising awareness makes me gag, it’s all about her. And her privilege. She has no concept of the struggle to get treatment of any kind, and like the op, don’t want to deny her pain but she is not prevented by pain from leading an incredibly active life, so her chronic illness and mine bear no relation. I resent the fact that she is now thought of in any way as being representative of fibromyalgia sufferers

    • dSavannah dSavannah says:

      Thank you for reading. Your impressions are spot on!

      Her being thought of as representative could actually damage some of us who are ill… The old “well, she does this, why can’t you?” when it’s simply impossible without her resources.

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