Why modern celeb documentaries feel like bad episodes of the Kardashians

There’s a clear formula to these films, with celebrity stripped back in layers. 

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Over halfway into Netflix’s Lady Gaga documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, we’re shown a montage of the singer giving promotional interviews for her new album, Joanne. Zane Lowe interviews her about the trauma of “the public announcement that your marriage is breaking up [when] you’ve got to go make a record”, about “paranoia”, “fear”, “alcohol”, “drugs”, “anxiety” and “the deepest pain”. We hear a whole host of other interviewers ask her similar questions. “It’s very personal in a way that I just haven’t been,” Gaga says of her record. And then, “It’s so personal.” And then, “It’s a very personal title.” And then, “When it comes to revealing something so personal…” And then, “I’ve never been that personal with my fans.”

Celebrity interviews are a strange breed of manufactured intimacy. They are tightly controlled affairs that offer audiences the performance of revelation, without actually revealing anything awkward, unlikeable or even surprising about their subject. Unfortunately, the same can be said of Five Foot Two.

This constant repetition of the word "personal" to faceless strangers builds a picture that is deeply, uncomfortably impersonal. In the same way that Gaga sold Joanne as the only glimpse of the real her, or radio hosts sold their interviews with Gaga as revelatory, Five Foot Two purports to be “an intimate look at her life, beyond the glitter and glam”. The title alludes to her height outside of ten-inch-high Alexander McQueen Armadillo.

In the documentary, we’re given all the visual signifiers of a “revealing” celebrity portrait. Gaga spends most time on screen in no make-up and varying degrees of undress. We see her crouched on the floor, with wet mascara rubbed all over her face. We see her lying on a massage table in her New York apartment, or leaning nonchalantly on the counter of her Malibu kitchen. We see her at her grandmother’s house surrounded by old family pictures. And we get very little sense of what she’s actually like.

It’s not fair to say we never learn anything about Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, but we don’t get real insight into her life either. Take her love life. We can put two and two together and realise we are seeing her relationship break down: Gaga mentions early on in the documentary that she’s “in a fight with Taylor” (her fiancé, though this is not explained for viewers less in the know). Later, we hear her crying about how “my love life’s imploded”. Later still, we see her receive flowers from her “ex”. But we never know exactly when, or how, or why this might have happened, nor are we given much context – blink and you could miss all three of these references to her romantic life completely.

We see a lot but learn little of her chronic pain – distressing scenes repeatedly show her crying and receiving treatment for her condition, but we never learn what it’s called, or how it affects her life in the bigger picture, while references to an earlier hip injury (that committed fans will know all about) are never fully explained.

The same can be said for her family relationships, her concern for a terminally ill friend, and her fears about her album’s reception. The documentary gestures towards all of these things, but never fully interrogates them. As Kelsey McKinney at the Village Voice explains, Gaga’s tweets about her documentary were often more revealing than the documentary itself.

This is the sleight of hand that characterises so many authorised music documentaries about mainstream living artists. The biggest music documentaries of all time, according to IMDB, are mostly films about living teen pop sensations, from Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never to Miley Cyrus’s Best Of Both Worlds. (Netflix seems particularly interested in the popular musician documentary – aside from hosting most of these films, the streaming service has produced originals with Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Keith Richards, Tony Bennett, The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and DJ Steve Aoki, as well as celebrities like Vine and YouTube star Cameron Dallas.)

They’re all concert films that make grand statements about revealing their person behind the celebrity for the first time, often in their titles – like Katy Perry’s Part of Me or One Direction’s This Is Us. All have a rare level of access to their celebrity, and emphasise their subject’s unusual humanity, their love for their families, and their surprisingly genuine connection with their fans.

There’s a clear formula to these films, with celebrity stripped back in layers. We start by watching them mid-performance, surrounded by screaming fans, before moving to backstage (messing around in wardrobe and makeup and rehearsal), home life (be that the tour bus, hotel, or a more standard home set-up) before glimpsing their roots (Katy Perry and Lady Gaga visit their grandmas, Bieber and the One Direction boys return to their hometowns.) We discover a darker side to their fame – usually loneliness. But all end with the sense that the star at the film’s centre has been held at arm’s length – an inevitable consequence of films that use access as a tool for PR over honesty.

In many ways, these kinds of documentary feel less like biopics and more like long episodes of a celebrity docuseries like Keeping Up With the Kardashians. They all share similar promises of a look behind the curtain while a celebrity is at the peak of their fame. They all emphasise family and normality, but revel in cameos from celebrity friends.

Like the Kardashians, they have scenes of scripted reality – the One Direction film This Is Us sends the boys on a bizarre camping trip (as though they can’t afford a luxurious hotel) to talk about their hopes and dreams for the future, and has several scenes involving members of the band talking to fans in elaborate disguises, a tried-and-tested KUWTK staple.

Crucially, they also all struggle to create a fresh narrative about their star in the past tense, when the same period of that celebrity’s life has been documented on social media and scrutinised in great detail, in real time. How do you cover a robbery, or a divorce, or a public disappointment, that the whole world knew almost everything about, months after the incident?

Both KUWTK and the films use media montages to introduce difficult topics. Like in KUWTK, in Katy Perry’s Part Of Me, we learn that Perry’s marriage to Russell Brand was dissolving – seemingly unbeknown to everyone she worked with – thanks to clips of entertainment newsreaders and illustrations of the thousands of supportive tweets sent to Perry when the news broke.

Gaga has several “mini meltdowns” in Five Foot Two – small upsets over her wardrobe or her movie role that are superficially tumultuous but have little lasting impact on her life. Perhaps most notable of these is her frustration over her album being leaked. “My album is haemorrhaging all over the internet,” she says from a doctor’s appointment. “300,000 downloads. It’s not right.” Here, as at many points, it feels like the film is skirting around the real issue – that Joanne was not a critically or commercially successful album for Lady Gaga.

Again, a montage of press voiceovers is the closest the movie ever gets to acknowledging this. Several journalists are shown gushing over the album, with one or two dissenting voices incorporated into the mix, including one that says, “She was over at least a couple of years ago.” This is the point where we would ideally get some new insight on the Gaga rebrand from Stephanie herself – has “stripping back” failed to serve its purpose? Will she go back to the Gaga that secured her fame? Or was this record never about sales and great reviews for her? We never find out.

It’s a sad indictment of the state of the celebrity documentary if recycled TV clips and magazine headlines offer a more authentic look at a particularly notable incident than a supposedly all-access film crew. This is especially disheartening at a time when journalism is itself struggling to cope with a media landscape where celebrities have more and more control over how to release information to their fan bases. The result is a final product akin to plastering Niall Horan or Kourtney Kardashian in five pounds of make up just to take it off again – a theatrical but superficial reveal. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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