Lady Gaga took over HBO the other night with a filmed concert special, Lady Gaga Presents the Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square Garden. "Little Monsters," marginal fans, and just the curious could get a look at what a Gaga concert would be like, and she really delivered the experience, clocking in at almost two hours of non-stop Gaga.
As much as I appreciate her wanting to give her fans far and wide the experience of a live concert, HBO and Gaga could have made a much better film. It is clear from the opening and closing of the special that there was another, much more entertaining and fascinating route to take than just the aleady-in-place narrative of the yellow brick road to the Monsters Ball. Running over the closing credits is a wonderful version of her latest single, "Born This Way," which hints at the film that could and should have been made.
The program opens with Gaga walking down a block in downtown New York City, wearing a leather jacket, bodysuit, and fishnets, on her way to the local deli to buy a coffee pre-show. What must be a familiar scene from Gaga's New York past helps underlines her need to be loud and proud in all aspects of her life. There are a few more conversational snippets in the car on the way to the big show at the Garden (and lots more available on YouTube).
As she's getting made up pre-concert Gaga confesses, "Sometimes I still feel like a loser in high school." The special just uses an abbreviated clip, which is taken out of context — a random quote, which may help fuel the fire of her detractors and former fans, now nay-sayers, already bored with Gaga's mainstream success and ready to move onto the next big, edgy thing. But alonger version of the interview shows a vulnerable person, and a look into what drives this performer, and performers in general, into the limelight. She's more than an outrageous mannequin for a dress made of meat.
The concert begins and a succession of elaborate sets — a big green junker car that is also a piano, a subway car on the way to the Monster Ball — and even more elaborate costumes — delight the tons of screaming fans. It must mean a lot for Gaga, née Stefani Germanotta, to have finally made it big in her home town, as she reminds her audience and the viewers at home throughout the concert. But it is sometimes hard to see her in such a large venue, because she is still essentially a club act.
The cameras help as HBO gets in close for all the grinding choreography, but I can't help wonder what the experience was for the folks in the nosebleed seats. The nuances are mostly lost on the stadium crowd. I've been to the Garden and sat in those seats. Gaga has too, and tries to keep it as clubby as she can, with neon lights and the stage more square than rectangular. She also has her far-away fans in mind as she frequently pauses between songs to yell up to the rafters, "What is the monster Ball? The monster ball will set you free," and promising, "No bitches lip-syncing!"
Theatrical and performance-art elements are mixed with the de rigueur synchronized dancing that makes up pop music these days. Gaga and her troupe can certainly dance, as they choreograph their way through her hits "Just Dance," "Boys, Boys, Boys," "Papparazzi" and "Poker Face." Wearing a glittery body stocking and chains she introduced "Poker Face" as "The record that changed my life." The rest of her hits, including "Telephone" and "Alejandro" got equally shiny treatment. But Gaga's art school background (NYU's Tisch School of the Arts) came through in her choice of costumes:
A Spanish Inquisition cast-off meets Norma Desmond meets Carol Burnett's curtain-rod shoulders
A see-through plastic dress with a Flying Nun wimple, claw hand, and Wendy O crosses on her breasts
Wearing a long, black leather trench coat, sunglasses that melt across her face while playing a Dr. Who-looking custom-made keytar
A wedding cake plastic fronds dress complete with motorized fans that open and close
And many, many more.
She is constantly compared to another petite Italian girl who made it big, Madonna, but as much as there are many stylistic similarities — their style of dance music, collaborations with fashion designers, religious-themed music videos — Gaga sets herself apart from Madonna and every other pop princess when she sits (or stands) at the keyboard and belts one out. Two of the best performances are at the piano when she sings "Speechless" — quite nice, and later, "You and I" — quite bluesy. Madonna could never do that.
She alternates cabaret chit-chat with the audience with guttural yells at them. It's a little too much inspirational banter for my taste, but you sense that she is sincere when she thanks the audience for being her fans and buying tickets to her show.
I don't think it was my HD television, but for the most part the sound quality was just OK – much of her talking with the audience and a lot of the lyrics weren’t as sharp as they should have been. The audience seemed to hear her between-song monologues, so could it just be how HBO recorded the event.
It was funny to hear her keep telling the audience to put their hands up, in cheerleader fashion, during a song's chorus and watch a sea of iPhones raised to record her every move. And then she was off stage, for a sip of water, a new hat and her next number.
Gaga and her dancers ended the show, and apparently the concert journey, in pale yellow toga-like outfits to sing the anthem "Born This Way." And then off she went, in a long jacket made of feathers, whisked away from the concert, with everyone back to their mostly glitter-free reality as the tremendous black and white a capella clip of Gaga and her back-up singers rehearsing "Born This Way" played over the closing credits As fun as the sideshow can be to watch, that's the Gaga I want to see more of and HBO or someone should make that film, exposing the Gaga beneath the glitz and feathers. The woman can sing. She's the real deal.