The crowds at Toronto International Film Festival are a tough group to impress.
Now in its 42nd year, the famed festival, often viewed as a precursor to the Oscars,
has welcomed every major film star in the world to its red carpets during the 10-day celebration of film.
This year’s star attendees – George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Idris Elba, Emma Stone, Matt Damon – were all cheered on by appreciative audiences although the greatest applause was most definitely reserved for Lady Gaga.
A last-minute addition to the festival, she didn’t disappoint, treating fans to a variety of quick-change ensembles as she promoted Chris Moukarbel’s Netflix documentary, Five Foot Two, promising to reveal the ‘real’ Gaga and offering an artfully casual glimpse into her life.
Certainly, it’s entertaining to watch, but it offers little we haven’t seen before and, frankly, there are laughable moments where Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, is seen being attended to by three masseuses in the bathtub of her penthouse New York apartment overlooking Central Park, weeping because her fans cannot share in her experience.
But nobody can deny Gaga’s personal magnetism as she moves about her world, in the film talking candidly about her struggles with depression, anxiety and chronic pain from a broken hip.
Often wearing her heart on her sleeve, she would even break down in tears when quizzed about her battle with pain, as she met with the press at Toronto.
Cameras are a daily presence in the world of Gaga, whether she chooses it or not, hence her initial reluctance to participate in such a documentary. “Having cameras in your face a lot is difficult so why on top of that would I want to have one follow me all the time, every single day, unless it was something that I was really excited to see artistically how he viewed my life?” she asks.
“I did feel she was a reluctant participant,” admits Moukarbel. “It’s a difficult thing to let someone into your life and let them see a picture of what it’s like to be you. At any point, she could have pulled the plug and said, ‘I don’t want to continue’, but she allowed it to happen and I’m really proud of our film.”
While Gaga herself has yet to watch the documentary, she was encouraged by the response of close friends and family who viewed the footage during the editing process. “They told me it was beautiful and my sister loved it. I guess that’s all you can really ask for. But this film is not my vision – it’s Chris’ vision. I’m just a party to this because it’s my life and I told him when he could come in and film – there were very few times when I didn’t want him to film and that was when I was in a state of mind where I didn’t want a camera in my face. The main reasons were when I was overwhelmed and needed space,” says Gaga noting that it’s a good time to release such a documentary, given that it officially marks her ten-year anniversary as a major recording artist.
“During that time, my life has changed in the most wonderful way that I would never take back. There have been the highest highs but also the lowest lows.”
Critics, she says, can often be hurtful. “It’s always personal when you put something out into the world and you want them to see it as a gift you’ve given them: ‘I made this for you, I love you, I want to entertain you’. That’s always my goal when I’m creating things. I truly love to make people happy through what I do. But I’m not in the business of trying to make you all like me. I’m in the business of creating fantasies and music and experiences and theatre and art that inspires people.
“But the most important thing to me in my career has always been about spreading a positive message. I’d say that’s my most favourite thing.”
Unafraid to show her vulnerability, she adds, “the most important thing to me was that this didn’t come across like a big commercial and everybody watching it and seeing how perfect I am and how perfect my career is, because that is simply not true. The most important thing I can be is authentic,” says Gaga who doesn’t shy away from answering criticism that her music has sometimes imitated Madonna, saying that if someone has a problem with her, she hopes they would say it to her face.
In a changing social media society, where everyone has a platform, Gaga believes her music is more important than any tweet, Instagram picture or Facebook post. “I would dare to say that music is infinitely more powerful than a tweet or an Instagram post with a selfie of me or a statement about what I think about the world.
“Music has the power to heal people through its vibrations. This is science. When music happens and it comes out of the speakers, there are things that happen in your body and in your spirit that are not the same as what you feel when you’re reading a post.”
Dressed today in black figure-hugging jeans and zippered jacket, her ash blonde hair is long and feathered, her mascara is smudged by tears as she talks about opening up in the film about her chronic pain.
“It was incredibly hard on a basic, fundamental human level to be near somebody who is experiencing pain like that,” says Moukarbel as Gaga struggles to collect her emotions. “Just knowing that there’s nothing you can do and there’s nothing that they can do at that moment either because they’ve been trying everything. I felt compelled to continue to roll [during those scenes] and I knew that she wanted me to because, of all things, that was something she felt should be in this film. I think she’s very aware of other people who struggle with similar chronic pain, and not knowing how they deal with it, she herself is still not sure how to deal with it. I think that’s a reality that, even in her position, physical pain is disabling and it’s impressive to watch her way of trying to overcome it.”
Gaga has long felt a connection with her fans, receiving millions of letters, many of them containing cries for help.
“I am sad that my fans are going through difficult life experiences and yet I am so grateful that I get to have that very close intimate relationship with them even on stage where there’s 50,000 people watching.”
Making Gaga: Five Foot Two, she says, was cathartic. “There is a very strong piece of me that believes that pain is a microphone and my pain really does me no good unless I transform it into something that is. I hope that people who watch it, people who do struggle with chronic pain, will know that they are not alone. I hope they will hear the message and reach out about mental health and anxiety and chronic pain.
“There is a degree of self-deprecation and shame that goes along with these conditions to know that I struggle with them.”