Why is it so weird for an actor to make a career change and decide to be a rapper? The idea works in reverse. Hip-hop stars transition successfully to TV and movies all the time, and though few if any abandon their first profession completely, a lot of them end up more focused on the new course they've taken. We may be reminded of this imbalance while watching the new documentary I'm Still Here, in which actor-turned-rapper Joaquin Phoenix meets with rapper-turned-actor Sean "Diddy" Combs to discuss the former's interest in recording a hip hop album. Combs gets rather annoyed at "JP" (Phoenix's new rapper name) for seemingly treating rap as an easy thing to do. There's a definite level of irony to the pairing of these two figures here. As there is with another candid moment between Phoenix and a genuinely stunned Mos Def.
Phoenix's mistake could be that he retired from acting suddenly and outright, or it might be that his talent for rapping is undeniably thin. Or, frankly, that he's white. Yet the fact is, regardless of his skin color or how he went about it and whether or not he was good at his chosen music genre, there is a plain and simple factor that movie stars can't overcome, and that is the fame game. Even when well-received critically or commercially, like an Eddie Murphy or a Kevin Bacon, the world will never be able to separate the music or the act from the celebrity attached to it. People listening to or seeing a live performance by Dogstar or 30 Odd Foot Grunts primarily sees Keanu Reeves or Russell Crowe in their respective band. We saw that mess with Billy Bob Thornton last year. And it's an interesting matter to, um, explore in a, uh...
Hold on, I'm going off in a direction unsuited to this film and, I presume, unsuited to your interest in it. Let me address the real issue after the jump.
Is I'm Still Here a hoax? A mockumentary? A joke two years in the making with an unsatisfactory punchline? I think the truth is out there, you've probably already heard by now, but the truth is not the point, in my opinion. Whether or not it's any good is. If we are to lump this film, the debut directorial effort from Casey Affleck, with other examples of a noticeable trend in doc-making this year, it should, in spite of its position on the fact<-->fiction spectrum, remain with a level of mystery like Exit Through the Gift Shop or an undeniable brilliance in narrative suspense and surprise like Catfish. Unfortunately, I'm Still Here is either way a meta bore of media manipulation and scrutiny wrapped up in a modern-day Cocksucker Blues meets Overnight, to name two docs less-known yet more necessarily viewed than this one.
And yes, even if the film is not 100% reality -- and you knew already in 2008 that it is not -- it's still a documentary. Affleck and Phoenix seem at times to be inspired more by the fictional work of their past collaborator Gus Van Sant (at the end, especially) and maybe somewhat Todd Haynes (if the title similarity to I'm Not There is accidental, I'm at least not the first to see a connection to Velvet Goldmine by way of Spacehog's Antony Langdon, who appears there as a member of a fake band and here as Phoenix's fake[?] personal assistant, as well as plot parallels). Meanwhile, as a hybrid, I'm Still Here might be intent on doing to the entertainment tabloid industry what Sacha Baron Cohen (with his films Borat and Bruno) and recent Sundance-winner The Red Chapel do respectively to America and North Korea. However, at the end of the day, this is an exercise in non-fiction and an experiment with documentary form, as failed as it may be in execution.
What you will see in the film, if you're still intrigued, is basically a narrative chain connecting all you've read and seen and heard pertaining to Phoenix's life over the past two years (just browse our posts tagged with his name for a refresher). The now viewable links being footage, some more obviously staged than others, of Phoenix and/or his entourage doing coke, hiring prostitutes, exposing their penises, cursing, fighting, yelling, crying, back stabbing, removing back hair, vomiting and defecating (on Phoenix's face). All fairly tame to the regular reality TV viewer, though here it's considerably less censored, I guess.
The familiar bits, like a near-intact clip of Phoenix's infamous Late Show appearance, now with some additional context, remind me of the re-creations of TV moments (including a Letterman talk show appearance) in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon and the half-re-creation of a TV moment (also specifically a Letterman talk show appearance) from American Splendor. They also constantly remind us that we're watching something that couldn't exist without this media coverage and involvement, which wouldn't exist without the project, and so forth. It's a making of its own making of an unmaking, if that makes sense. Or, it's a pseudo-paradoxical spiral, like the optical illusion kind, or an Ouroboros, or a Human Centipede-esque metaphor for and pun on bottom feeding (graphically depicted in the aforementioned defecation scene) directed at those of us who have been covering, if not also those of you following, the train-wreck of a stunt (or is it stunt of a train-wreck?) since the fall of '08.
If you would have attended, or would still attend, a live performance of "JP" as rapper simply because he's Joaquin Phoenix, you'll probably still want to see this familiar and obvious story about an artist in free fall, simply because he's Joaquin Phoenix. Maybe you'll laugh and find it amusing. Unlike the heckler at a Miami concert depicted in the film, however, you won't personally be ridiculed and physically attacked. You'll just leave the theater feeling like you were. Only without the genuine bragging rights to say you were indeed punched in the face by a celebrity.