I'm Still Here review (Blu-ray)

In October 2008, Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from acting to take up a career in music. For someone Oscar nominated for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line and widely lauded for his role as Commodus in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, this seemed like an unusual move to say the least. A controversial appearance on The David Letterman Show in which he largely failed to answer the questions put to him certainly added fuel to the fire that all may not be right with him. But would he really give it all up to become a rapper?

In the intervening two years I'm Still Here was filmed. Directed by Joaquin's friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck, the story begins with Phoenix explaining that he's sick of acting, of being told what to do, of not having control of his destiny and that he intends to make a success of his music career. Now, if you've seen his character rapping in his last film Two Lovers you might not be too confident about his chances of making it. But JP, as he generally calls himself, is focused and arranges a meeting with Sean 'P.Diddy' Combs in New York. But while he's waiting for Diddy to call him, he amuses himself with drugs and hookers - all under the watchful eye of Affleck's camera.

So what's going on, you may well ask? Is this all for real or is it an incredibly elaborate ruse? It's actually quite hard to tell at times and for a large part of the film Phoenix seems genuinely to be off his tits on some recreational pharmaceutical or other. He's definitely kidding himself if he thinks his music is going to get him anywhere without a great deal of work. Mumbling incoherently about "muthafuckers" and adding "bitch" to the end of each verse isn't quite all there is to it. So while it's laugh-out-loud funny at times there's a niggling doubt that he really believes in his new career path and that's a somewhat sobering thought.

With the likes of Mos Def, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Ben Stiller and Diddy all making appearances to a greater or lesser extent there is at times a strong feeling of celebrity collaboration going on. JP's relationship with his frankly useless friends/assistants Anton and Larry veers from the ridiculous to the plain crazy while his performance in a Miami nightclub is as bizarre as it is shambolic. If I'm Still Here is a genuine documentary then it's a funny and at times touching portrayal of a talented man slowly unravelling. If it's a mockumentary then it's a brilliantly played part with Phoenix as himself going into meltdown is quite a sight to behold. In the end though it almost doesn't matter because this is never less than absorbing and for all its rough documentary feel this is an entertaining and expertly crafted piece of filmmaking. Bitch.

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Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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