I’m Still Here, 2010.
Directed by Casey Affleck.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Announcing his retirement from acting, Joaquin Phoenix embarks on a journey to establish himself as a successful rapper.
I’m Still Here is one of those curios, that which the hype and marketing surrounding the film end up completely overshadowing the film itself. For example, The Blair Witch Project was so ingeniously marketed via the internet (viral marketing being a relatively new phenomena at the time) that when people actually sat down and watched the film, many were disappointed. Probably because it wasn’t that great. With I’m Still Here, director Casey Affleck and star Joaquin Phoenix pulled off the near-masterstroke of convincing everyone that the film was a genuine documentary, that Phoenix was indeed embarking on a rap career and yes, he’s gone off the rails in the process. Aided by some inspired self-promotion such as the infamous David Letterman interview and his announcement that he was retiring from acting to pursue his new career, instigating a small media frenzy, the general public were genuinely under the impression it was all real. Even after the film-makers revealed the film and Phoenix’s ‘rap career’ was a hoax, this ‘mockumentary’ remains an interesting feature.
The idea for the film was born out of Phoenix and brother-in-law Affleck’s disbelief that the general public believed so called ‘reality shows’ to be real and unstaged. With this in mind, they constructed a persona for Phoenix with a view to examining the relationship between the media and the public and exploring the notion of celebrity in the process.
The film follows Phoenix as he haphazardly attempts to make the transition from successful Hollywood actor to rapper, a move that one would expect to be reasonably achievable given his status. He spends a fair portion of the film pursuing Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs in his attempts to get his album produced by the rap star. When he finally does track him down in his studio, he appears awkward and fumbles over the choice of tracks to play to ‘P Diddy’. A live performance at a nightclub in Miami ends with Phoenix abandoning the stage to brawl with a heckler (apparently an actor in on the hoax).
The songs he writes and the actual rapping he does aren’t actually very good, but that’s kind of the point, because the film is more than anything about Phoenix failing to become a rapper than succeeding. Bickering with friends and assistants, taking drugs, throwing tantrums and generally falling apart at the seams, Phoenix is a man denied at every turn by Hollywood and the media who just want him to be ‘Joaquin Phoenix the Film Star’. The bloated, overweight, scruffy and obnoxious character is such a far cry from the clean-cut, successful movie star we’re accustomed to so that the character can actively challenge what Hollywood will ‘allow’ you to do. In this respect, the film succeeds in challenging the idea of what is ‘acceptable’ in Hollywood and what isn’t.
The film is bookended with scenes of Phoenix as a child, swimming in the large, wild pool in the family garden, with the final scenes featuring the adult Joaquin wading out into the waters, seemingly lost, while a solemn piano plays over the scene. These scenes, particularly the final one, are the most poetic and artistically beautiful of the film, being almost non-documentary in style with no sound or dialogue, just music. He wades out deeper and deeper, the film ending as his head disappears below the water, representing his isolation, the river swallowing him up as Hollywood swallows so many talented young actors.
Even with the knowledge that the film is a hoax I still found myself forgetting the fact, so absorbing and complete was Phoenix’s ‘performance’. You begin to pity the desperate, wild-eyed (well, behind the sunglasses) man just struggling to find his new place in the world and ultimately, finding himself utterly lost. While his constant tantrums do begin to grind and the somewhat aimless nature of the second act do detract, the solemn-ness of the ending refocuses the points the film set out to make. As an experiment and a documentary, I’m Still Here intrigues rather than entertains, but I’d still recommend it, Phoenix’s performance raising some fascinating questions regarding the fickleness of Hollywood.
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