When Joaquin Phoenix announced he was to quit acting to launch a music career as a hip-hop artist, the entertainment world didn’t really know what to make of the whole situation. It came as such a shock from the Oscar-nominated actor, whether it was all a rouse or his genuine ambition didn’t really come into it, everyone was so taken-a-back, their though process didn’t really get onto the analysis stage.
In time, however, and after it emerged brother-in-law Casey Affleck for a film would document Phoenix’s transition, the rumours started to echo. Anonymous sources were quoted in various publications that the project was all a con, and the resulting mockumentary hit the cinema world as something of a mix between Borat and This Is Spinal Tap. What was Joaquin Phoenix’s true intention? No one really knew, though since his first announcement in late 2008, he has maintained his change of direction to be an entirely serious venture.
I’m Still Here is the resulting release, and if nothing else, it’s a powerful film, brutally harsh and feels honest to the core. Though we never really see Joaquin song-write, it glimpses instead into his tracks and set-up as he tries to track down Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs to produce his debut album and prepare for live appearances in Las Vegas and Miami. Plus a bunch of partying and wasting away in between.
Even after watching the film, it’s far from clear whether we’ve all fallen prey to one elaborate trick, or if Phoenix’s steps into hip-hop where from the heart as he genuinely grew trapped by life as an actor. Whichever is the truth, it doesn’t really affect I’m Still Here, and it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the events, you’ll forget about questioning him fairly early on.
The film depicts roughly a year, jumping fairly seamlessly from event to event, with drips and drops of everyday life ticking it all along. To Affleck’s praise it flows nicely, with the awkward and slight stutter you feel in the narrative only adding to the tone and atmosphere of the film. It doesn’t feel scripted and the rough and ready style was necessarily to make it not look set up. It feel like a home movie, but it’s sophisticatedly put together, at a pace allowing the audience to digest the shocking events without growing tired or questioning how much is fake, and how much reality.
At times I’m Still Here is as ridiculous as Borat, which certainly adds weight to the naysayers’ arguments, and yet even through the multiple shots of male nudity, drug taking and human desecration, everything feels organic.
Though it’s funny at times, much of the events are both shocking and heartbreaking in equal measure, as a man falls from grace and self-control with such visible results. Would such a high profile actor put himself through so much obvious stress and pain, all for an intricate hoax and ambitious documentary project? It feels real, which is either wonderful acting or means the plight of Phoenix is a remarkable waste of talent, devastating for his fans. Though perhaps what is more shocking is the reaction he gets along the way, and the complete lack of respect he is shown at his performances and in daily life. Then again, you don’t want to be the fool that believed it all for Affleck and Phoenix to turn around at the end and say “haha, got you!”, and for that reason, Joaquin’s music career was maybe always doomed, real or fake.
Only time will tell what happens to Joaquin, but taken at face value this is a fairly brilliant documentary, a powerful insight into a tortured mind, or for believers that the whole thing is a hoax, one of the greatest pieces of performance art in cinematic history.