These past couple of weeks during a bout of insomnia, I decided to watch all three Netflix features of the pop giants pictured above. Lady Gaga’s film Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017) shows the soft underbelly of the events coinciding with the star’s fifth album Joanne and her performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana (2020) is a little mini biopic and behind-the-scenes feature focusing on Swift’s public image and personal struggles over the years of her success. Beyoncé finishes the lineup with a bang in Homecoming (2019) which intertwines footage of her Coachella 2018 headlining performance alongside the months of production that went into the show.
I’m going to go through each one, let you know my oh-so important opinion about them all and give you my final thoughts a la Jeffree Star after we’ve gone through the pros and cons together. These are three deities of pop music and pop culture each in their own completely unique ways. Right off the bat, I want to say before I watched these, I liked Lady Gaga the most, Taylor Swift next, then Beyoncé the least. I actively disliked Beyoncé actually, mostly due to the Jonestown style following she has amassed online that compels me to admit she is superior to all no matter what my own taste is. I also don’t really like R&B or hip-hop, so would this show be enough to change my views? Read on to find out…
Gaga: Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga
As I have said before, I love Gaga. Not so much to the point I would call myself a Little Monster, the name her fandom has bestowed upon themselves, but I enjoy her tunes, what she stands for, and how she comes across. This documentary offers a stripped down Lady Gaga rather than the avant-garde rock star we tend to see gracing the red carpets.
Directed by Chris Moukarbel, the technical work has been generally well received by critics. Leslie Felperin (The Hollywood Reporter) said the feature “is assembled with competence and style, with graceful editing by Greg Arata” and I do agree; the camera work is crisp, and the editing keeps you interested without getting too gimicky. Is that enough to save the lacking content though?
That’s right Little Monsters, I said it! As much as I loved seeing Gaga in my personal clothes goals and garnered a new found respect for her, the journey and desired message of the film was all over the place. One minute it was about Joanne. Then it was about her health problems. Then it was about the Super Bowl. Then it was about her personal life. Each of these topics were explored quite well and I did remain entertained for the whole 100 minutes, but I did frequently find myself asking “What’s the point in this film?”. Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, is a relatively transparent celebrity. There was no big reveal about what she’s really like because I think we all know the score by now, we know what we can expect from her even underneath the dramatic costumes. The film also had the chance to thoroughly document the production process and aftermath of Joanne, or show some extensive preparation and exclusive footage of the Super Bowl show, but hopes of these were dashed the further into the film I got.
What I will say is the horrific scenes of Gaga’s fibromyalgia flare ups are eye-opening, both towards her as a person and the condition itself. On at least two occasions the camera documents Gaga bedridden with pain, sobbing as health professionals try to calm her furious muscles. A visit to her doctor also gives a glimpse into the cocktail of medications needed to try and tame the condition, and as Lady Gaga herself says, you really wonder how normal, everyday people can crack on with this horrible syndrome.
But as educational as some parts were, it didn’t save the whole film. Overall it was fine. It didn’t give me the narrative and production value of Homecoming, but it did offer a little more edge and substance than Miss Americana for my liking. Speaking of which…
Miss Americana, Taylor Swift
The documentary starts with what feels like is going to be a classic Netflix Set-Up-Mic/Drop-Mic intro; you know the ones on the true crime documentaries where some local’s voice-over sets up with, “Thang with Backwatertown is that nuttin’ ever happens here… errbody knows errbody…” – a drone camera is panning over Backwatertown, then BOOM -“Never wudda guessed we’d have a serial killuh here,” mic drop. Taylor sets up with an intimate and relatable monologue about how she has made her life choices dependent on pleasing people. She confesses the compulsive need to be liked and to be seen as a good person. She sets up even further by detailing her early success in her career which made her feel she had achieved her goals.
The mic doesn’t drop though. It makes the start of the film feel very much like a humblebrag from Taylor Swift, and it did take me about a third of the 86 minutes to realise this wouldn’t be a documentary where Swift rubs in being adored and successful to us peasants in the audience.
Produced by Tremolo Productions and directed by Lana Wilson, it’s another Netflix movie that is stylistically efficient. But like Gaga: Five Foot Two, the actual story is all over the place. What is this film actually about? The only answer I can really offer is ‘Taylor Swift’.
There is no definitive project, moment or message until the very last minute and it’s a pretty naive ‘purpose’ of making this documentary in my opinion. Taylor discusses a range of personal issues including her frequently discussed love life, her sexual assault legal battle, that Kanye West drama and body image issues she reveals she still battles with. But by far the most time-consuming issue discussed is Swift’s political voice. We see her muster the courage to approach and begin tearfully pleading with her father and a member of her management team to be allowed to… say stuff about politics.
That’s it. It’s well intentioned and I understand this is a young woman with no requirement to be politically informed, but it is just quite embarrassing to watch. She’s about 28-years-old when she sobs, “I need to be on the right side of history. … Dad, I need you to forgive me for doing it, because I’m doing it,” in regards to her decision to vocally disagree with Republican Senator, Marsha Blackburn.
It makes me physically cringe when grown women allow their daddies to still buy into this ‘My Little Girl Princess’ trope, and even aside from this, it feels like a reveal of a very white, privileged lifestyle, that Taylor has just discovered that oh em gee, did you like, know politics like, effects people?! It might be harsh to say because like I’ve stated, she is ambitious to make genuine, positive change and that is always a good thing; it just came off as a little naive and patronising to the viewer. I also couldn’t help but note that Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga only have 3 years between their ages, and yet from the get-go, Gaga has been outspoken politically and vocalised her opinions and allegiances whenever she liked. I guess Taylor didn’t get the memo.
On the flipside, this documentary does show how hands-on and astoundingly hardworking Taylor Swift is. We get to be a fly-on-the-wall in multiple recording sessions and I was truly blown away by the level of professionalism and production prowess the pop star demonstrates. If I’m honest, I would have loved a documentary solely dedicated to showing her creative process.
All in all, I thought this was a bit dull and self-involved. Taylor Swift comes across as sweet, hopeful, incredibly talented and just beginning to find her feet in terms of her independence. I can relate to her doubts and fears a hell of a lot, but like Lady Gaga’s feature, I found myself shrugging at the end, as though to say “Ehhhh” in that way Gru’s mother does in Despicable Me.
Here’s the big one, freaks and geeks. Is Homecoming good enough to turn I, a well-known Beyoncé ‘hater’, a person who has ridiculed the obsession, a woman who has staunchly stood against the infatuation, into a disciple of the songstress?
Absolutely fucking yes.
Homecoming is so good. It’s beyond good. I went in with no loyalty or high hopes as well, so I can only imagine what a treat this must have been for lifelong members of the Beyhive (Beyoncé’s fandom, like of Gaga’s Little Monsters).
Where the other films failed, this one delivered; the topic is clear from the start, this is a feature about Beyoncé headlining Coachella and all the work that went into preparing for that show. We are treated to some personal snippets of her life, such as Beyoncé’s grueling regime to get back to performance-level fitness as well as what life is like for her as a mother and wife. There is a repeating motif of black pride throughout the documentary with beautifully inserted Maya Angelou voice-overs and a vast ensemble nodding to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs as she states throughout the performance) in their performance and attire. I’m white and feel white people have had far too much of a voice when it comes to the discussion of race and pride throughout history, so all I will say is that those concepts I just mentioned among others make this performance feel historic and important. Find a POC writer if you want a more in depth analysis and explanation, and be sure to share and support their work.
Back to the gig. The performance side of the film is just sheer joy. It’s like you’ve stumbled upon the coolest, happiest party by accident, and the host is handing you a beer before bringing you in to dance.
In keeping with the homecoming theme, throughout the performance we’ve got bleachers, marching bands, baton twirlers, breakdancing, pom-pom boots, and of course the homecoming queen herself.
Considering this is her comeback after dipping out of music to raise her family, Beyoncé is on fire in this movie. She dances alongside her troupe like she never had the break. Her vocals are incredible as she demonstrates both range and technique flawlessly. The crowd is going absolutely mental each time the camera pans to them as Beyoncé sings fan favourites, medleys of her hits, and even brings Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams to the stage for a mini Destiny’s Child reunion.
Speaking of the camera, as if a powerful message and incredible performance wasn’t enough; Beyoncé wrote, produced and directed the movie as well! Ed Burke assists as co-director to achieve a genuinely interesting and beautiful piece of cinematography with this project and I must say if Beyoncé truly had as much of a hand in directing this as is implied, I can’t wait to see what she’ll do with that talent next.
Hands down, this was the best of the lot. It’s also the longest, clocking in at 137 minutes, but the flits between performance and preparation mean it doesn’t actually feel that long. I never thought I would rescind my views on Beyoncé, and though her music is still not necessarily to my taste, I have a new-found, well overdue respect for her and I can’t get Drunk in Love out of my head.
So I did basically just mash three reviews into one! But what I want to make clear as I’m wrapping up is that I will not be comparing these artists against each other as women; I am comparing the quality, the artistry, and the content of these films. In the past I have been all too eager to jump on a keyboard and say how I think total strangers “seem like a bitch”, or how “I read somewhere that they were fake and rude”. Enough is enough. Tabloid culture has made it normal to slag off human beings for qualities we as the slagger-offer don’t even know are truthful. I have no idea what these women are like as people. I know I liked Beyoncé’s film the best and I liked Miss Americana the least. I know I disagreed with some of the personal admissions of these starlets, but it doesn’t mean they should be ridiculed for it. I know it’s unrealistic to say you will support and love every single thing any person ever does, but I think if someone’s message isn’t actively damaging or harmful, shouldn’t you just agree to disagree?
I agree to disagree with Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. I agree to agree with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Watch the documentaries for yourself, and let me know if you agree or disagree with me.