“Gaga: Five Foot Two” premiered on Netflix last month. The documentary feels, often, like we’re simply following Gaga around as she talks to herself, unaware of the camera’s presence. Sometimes it feels like an aimless but nonetheless aesthetically pleasing indie short. But throughout, the doc provides window after window into the titular megastar’s life that we haven’t really been privy to before. We all know about her rebranding with last year’s “Joanne,” the dissolution of her relationship with ex-fiancé Taylor Kinney and the terrifying reverence much of her fanbase directs toward her, painting her as a religious figure of sorts.
“Spielberg,” released last week by HBO, is an hour longer than “Gaga,” but doesn’t tell you much that isn’t already public knowledge about the storied Hollywood figure. I don’t mean to compare Steven Spielberg to Lady Gaga, directly — neither operate in the same sector of the entertainment business, and Spielberg has obviously been around longer (four decades, to be exact). But both have amassed vast and fervently devoted fanbases, turning their work into lifestyles or religions or, more often, mere obsessions.
So, yes, they deserve documentaries, but the premise of a biographical film about a very famous person only holds so much power. We keep making and watching them to learn things about these famous people we didn’t already know — like the extent of Lady Gaga’s chronic pain preventing her from performing, how prioritizing professionalism over romance has truly taken a toll on the pop star or the real degree of her perfectionism.
Like his films, “Spielberg” is relatively straightforward, subtly introspective and family-oriented. The doc hones in on where that deadbeat dad trope in his films comes from, and how heavily the director’s frayed family life affects his life and work. As a die-hard fan and someone who was raised on “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws” and the “Land Before Time,” it’s a delight to watch Spielberg discuss his work and childhood. Somehow, he remains as much the self-proclaimed idealist he was at the start of his career in the 1960s, and it’s a testament to his character that everyone from Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio to Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma appears to vouch for him.
But I was disappointed to learn virtually nothing I hadn’t already known about the director, and to glimpse only two or three candid non-interview moments of him on various film sets. He’s directed so many films (and produced a staggering amount more), that delving into each one would have been virtually impossible (unless HBO chose to go the episodic route over feature film, which, honestly, I can’t see being any less popular).
But it’s already public knowledge why the shark appears so little in “Jaws.” It’s public knowledge that Spielberg channeled his frustration with being a child of a particularly complicated divorce into recurring themes in his films, and that he’s fascinated with telling stories borne of or related to World War II.
Since almost every aspect of the living legend’s life has already been revealed and dissected by fans, a documentary would feel more appropriate had it revealed something, anything we didn’t already know or haven’t seen. At this point, the only way to do that would probably be to follow him, day-in-the-life style, à la the Gaga documentary or HBO’s “Bright Lights,” which alternates footage of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds interacting in their LA homes and at an awards show with clips from their home movies.
“Spielberg” is a joy to watch as a fan (which almost everyone is), but disappointing in that it doesn’t provide the intimate look into his life I’d been hoping for. Then again, it’s somehow still in line with many of his films’ style: sleek, smooth and deliberate, not always pushing boundaries but perfecting the ones they already exist within.