Turning celebrity breakdown into art

I'm Still Here documents Joaquin Phoenix’s journey from Hollywood star to obese, beardy rapper. Or is he just messing with us?

Emily Hill

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A child star’s fate is as predictable as rain in an English summer. Drew Barrymore did ET – and then cocaine at 13. Michael Jackson perfected his dance moves early on – then his skin turned and he began hanging out with a monkey. Britney Spears leapt to superstardom via The Mickey Mouse Club – before talking to trees, shaving her head and beating a pap with an umbrella.

So when Joaquin Phoenix, younger brother of River – an A-list heartthrob until he died of a drugs overdose at 23 – announced that he was quitting acting to make a rap record, ballooned and grew a beard worthy of the dead Rasputin, no one was particularly surprised.

‘Wearing a ladies’ hairclip to tie back his scraggy hair and his chiselled jaw covered up with a long, bushy beard, Phoenix looked a world away from the handsome Roman Emperor Commodus in 2000 epic Gladiator‘, noted the Daily Mail, rather breathlessly, after Phoenix’s disastrous, mumblecore appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, before adding that he was so off the rails that he wasn’t accepting any wholegrain, yoga-ised, raw vegetable words of wisdom from his Two Lovers co-star Gywneth Paltrow. ‘Gwyneth is somebody who tried to reach out to Joaquin after he no-showed their movie premiere in Cannes. But he just wasn’t responsive.’

Phoenix’s Letterman interview

Not wanting to talk to Gwynnie about things was probably the first sign that Phoenix was not doing a Britney at all, but rather acting out a breakdown for a documentary about the nature of celebrity, filmed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck. The result, I’m Still Here, has not been a hit at the box office, nor has it impressed many of Phoenix’s female fans, but it is a thought-provoking and downright weird piece of mock-reportage which suggests that Phoenix has a rather wild sense of humour, underneath all that actor-y, tortured passion he’s got his Oscar nominations for.

The film opens with Phoenix deciding to jack in Hollywood and ends with him falling off stage, being violently sick, retiring to Panama and sinking in a river. On the way, he raps increasingly ludicrous songs which seem to send up a certain white version of hip-hop tryhard – by which everyone thinks they can crack a rags to riches rhyme, even if they’re Madonna – and tries to get Sean Puffy / P Diddy / Diddy Coombs to produce his record. Coombs, who is still most famous for ripping up a Sting song in a tribute record to his murdered mate Notorious B.I.G, is a bad rapper himself. When Phoenix announces that he’s aiming at doing ‘the hip-hop Bohemian Rhapsody’ you can see Mos Def’s face twitching.

As Phoenix gets fatter and fatter and fatter, more and more stoned, does cocaine off the boobs of hookers, falls off stage, vomits and has an actor guru telling him that he’s a raindrop (‘That’s you, drops of water and you’re on top of the mountain of success’), the laughs get harder and more uncomfortable.

The film is too long and many seem to think that it is going to derail Phoenix’s career. But in arresting the celebrity breakdown narrative and taking it apart, Phoenix has produced something far more thought-provoking than whatever blockbuster that might be next on his agenda.

Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard and is also spiked’s columnist on celebrity culture. Visit her personal website here.

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