The Story Behind Im Still Here

I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix is a mess. It’s 11 March 2009, and he’s just pitched up at Miami nightclub LIV.

Sporting a black suit, an unruly save-that-for-later beard, and a pair of dark glasses, he’s not exactly the sharp Hollywood movie star he used to be.

Why’s he here? To rap, of course. Getting up on stage, Phoenix makes a go at a dirty rap song before heckling from the audience causes him to pause.

“We have a double-expletive in the crowd,” he says, before the jaded jeers prompt our bearded stage-hogger to launch from the spotlight and confront the man responsible.

“I saw the guy screaming at Joaquin, and Joaquin just came down,” reported an onlooker afterwards. “[Casey Affleck's] camera was filming the whole time, so it makes me think he has ulterior motives.”

Wait, Casey Affleck? Oh, right. Hollywood actor Affleck, who also happens to be Phoenix’s brother-in-law, is filming the off-the-rails star for a new documentary called I’m Still Here .

So this is all a performance, right? Method gone mad? Uh, maybe. Let’s investigate…

Next: I'm Still Joaquin [page-break]

I’m Still Joaquin

Ashton Kutcher’s done it. Sasha Baron Cohen’s done it. Heck, even Charlotte Church has done it. But is Joaquin Phoenix really jumping on the 'punked' bandwagon, or has his career genuinely taken a long walk off a short cliff?

That’s the question everybody wants answers to when it comes to I’m Still Here , a documentary (mockumentary?) starring Phoenix and directed by Casey Affleck. It’s just taken the Venice Film Festival by storm, but the film’s release hasn’t exactly stopped anybody scratching their heads.

Apparently, nobody knows if Phoenix’s bizarre transformation from Hollywood A-lister to wannabe rap singer is the genuine article. “I'm not sure I believed a word of this film,” wrote Rolling Stone magazine. “Actors who melt down on camera are usually, well, acting. But I couldn't take my eyes off I'm Still Here.”

Perhaps a little back story will shed some light on the situation... The year is 2005. Thirty-year-old actor Joaquin Phoenix has just starred in Walk The Line , in which he plays legendary rocker Johnny Cash.

For Phoenix, one of the main draws of the film was the music, something he previously felt ignorant about.

“I like music,” the actor said around the time Walk The Line hit screens. “I’ve always liked music. I didn’t understand it at all and I’ve a great understanding, a great appreciation now for it.

"But, you know, I didn’t pick up the guitar. It was like a month ago was the first time I picked up a guitar since I finished the film. I always just like drop something when I’m done with it.”

At the time, he had no plans to become a recording artist, stating: “No, I won’t be recording anything. I’ll do stuff for myself now that I have a great understanding. I won’t continue writing songs or anything.”

Fast forward three years, and Phoenix had performed an about turn on the recording thing. In May 2008, it was reported that the actor would be putting an album together with a little help from Tim Burgess – frontman of The Charlatans.

“Once he learnt guitar he found that he had quite a lot of demons inside himself that he wanted to expel through music,” Burgess said of the team-up.

"All the tracks were brilliant. But I think he just kept scrapping everything or redoing everything. I'm sad to say that I think it's one of those records that may never come out, to be honest with you."

Next: Here He Goes [page-break]

Here He Goes

Funnily, enough, Phoenix’s record has still to see the light of day.

By now, it was 2008, and he had narrated documentary Earthlings , produced and starred alongside Mark Wahlberg in We Own The Night , and turned up in Reservation Road.

But in October 2008, while out doing press for soon-to-be-last movie Two Lovers , a slurring Phoenix - already sporting the beginnings of a beard and hiding behind giant ‘70s porn star glasses – announced his retirement from acting.

“This will be my last performance as an actor,” he said. “I’m not doing films anymore. I’m doing music. I’ve been through that, I’ve done it, it seems like it’s Casey’s time now…”

He seems genuinely perplexed that it’s suggested that he’s kidding. “Not I’m not kidding,” he drily adds, before cutting the interview short when the giggling interviewer fails to take him seriously.

Casey Affleck, who was with Phoenix on the press circuit, added: “I don't think he's kidding. He's got music and stuff.”

And so began the oddball journey that would take up the next two years of Joaquin Phoenix’s life. Disappearing behind a giant bushy beard, and never seen without his sunglasses, he distanced himself from the acting world.

In January 2009 he made his most famous appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman , confirming once and for all that he was done with acting.

“You look different to the last time I saw you,” Letterman observes, before grilling Phoenix on his impressive beard.

After a few uncomfortable silences from the duo, filled with laughter from an audience surely convinced that this is some kind of skit, Phoenix confirmed that he was leaving acting.

“I don’t know what’ll happen,” he said. “It’s not really an easy thing to explain, it’s been a part of my life for a long time…” Pause. “I’ve been working on my music. I do hip-hop music. Is that a joke?”

Next: I'm Still Here [page-break]

I’m Still Here

That same month, it emerged that Casey Affleck would be trailing Phoenix and filming his every move as he attempted to become a rap star.

Though rumours began to stir about the authenticity of such an ambition, Phoenix was adamant that he was deadly serious with his new endeavours.

“This is not a joke,” he said. “Might I be ridiculous? Might my career in music be laughable? Yeah, that's possible, but that's certainly not my intention.”

Conflicting reports had him also stating “It’s a put-on. I’m going to pretend to have a meltdown and change careers, and Casey is going to film it,” though the validity of these comments have, funnily enough, never been verified.

Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly secured an unnamed source who told them: “It's an art project for him. He's going full out. He probably has told his reps that he's quit acting. Joaquin is very smart. This is very conscious. He has a huge degree of control.”

Alright, so how about we ask the director I’m Still Here what got him interested in making the doc?

“I wanted to explore what I thought would be a very interesting period in his life,” Affleck says. “I knew that he said he didn’t want to act anymore, and he wanted to try doing music. That right there, that just says, something is gonna happen. You know, that something would happen. I had no idea what exactly was going to happen, and all that would unfold.

“It ended up being more and more fascinating, more and more things happened that were both in the public spectacle and a very private internal implosion that I got to witness.

“It made for this unbelievable, one-of-a-kind movie. You'll find out what was happening in his life in that period - what was going on before he went on (sic), what was going on afterwards.”

Still no confessions either way. But taking a look at Phoenix’s reported lifestyle – which had him snorting cocaine, having oral sex with a publicist, ordering prostitutes and treating his assistants with deplorable lack of respect – it really seemed that the actor had lost the plot.

Two years later, in May 2010, not even potential film distributors knew what to make of the film. The potential buyers were shocked by the flick’s content, and reported that Phoenix came off as an unsympathetic character with no aptitude for music.

Next: Stiller's Here [page-break]

Stiller’s Here

At the 81st Academy Awards, the very forum in which Phoenix was once celebrated as a great actor, the star had become nothing more than a cheap joke.

Ben Stiller presented an award on stage with Natalie Portman, trussed up in a beard, suit and sunglasses, looking miserable as sin.

“I just want to retire from being the funny guy, that’s all,” Stiller moans, as Natalie Portman attempts to jolly him along. Audience members – including Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg – get a good laugh out of it.

Not that Phoenix was put out. A Fox News source reportedly spoke to somebody close to Phoenix, who revealed that he was in on the joke.

"Joaquin wanted this, of course he knew [about the parodies] because it’s all part of a very strategic plan," said the source. "He is selling it all as a documentary not about his musical career but the whole issue of public persona. It’s all a big joke and he’s not pursuing rapping seriously no matter what he says.

Ben [Stiller] was just going along with the joke that Joaquin started. He wasn’t poking fun at him, there are no hard feelings.”

Next: Still With Us? [page-break]

Still With Us?

Now the release date for I’m Still Here is almost upon us, and some of the film’s secrets are starting to unravel.

Phoenix has been spotted at the Venice Film Festival looking the most clean-shaven and healthy he has done in years, while Affleck has admitted that parts of the flick were staged – such as Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs’ appearance as himself, crushing Phoenix’s dreams.

“The role that (Combs) played in Joaquin's life was to be the bearer of bad news,” says Affleck. “He was the hammer that crushed the dream. All of that is a little bit of an act.”

Still, what is I’m Still Here ?

If it is a straight-up documentary depicting Phoenix as he means to continue, then the film is, as critic Roger Ebert says, “a sad and painful documentary that serves little useful purpose other than to pound another nail into the coffin”.

If not, this could just be the most fascinating, radical mock doc ever made. But then, wouldn’t the revelation of it all being a very elaborate joke make it rather less interesting? The uncertainty in itself is entertaining.

Perhaps the answer lies in Phoenix’s musings back in 2005 over whether or not he would bag an Oscar for his turn as Johnny Cash.

“Well really, for me, like my sense of accomplishment comes when I finish something and I know that I’m completely spent, and I know that I’ve done everything that I can,” he said.

“I think that what’s mattered most is what I’ve heard from the family and the people that were close to John. To have Kris Kristofferson come up and say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this. You did John proud.’ That’s all that I could ask for.”

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Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.