Jan. 29, 2009 — -- It was a less than auspicious debut.
Joaquin Phoenix, who recently announced that he was retiring from acting to focus full time on music, made his debut performance earlier this month with what was described as three barely comprehensible raps that he concluded by falling off the stage.
How did the audience respond?
"There was a mixture of people clapping," said Mike Snedegar, the head of entertainment marketing at Lavo, the Las Vegas nightclub where Phoenix performed Jan. 9, "and some with weird looks on their faces like, 'What is going on?'"
It's a question entertainment industry watchers have been asking themselves since Phoenix made the surprise announcement in October that he was ditching the acting business for a career in music.
Now, some are wondering whether Phoenix is carrying out some kind of elaborate ruse. If so, it could be his way of getting back at the media he has never felt completely comfortable with.
In a statement released to MTV News yesterday, Phoenix's rep, publicist Susan Patricola, said the actor's rap-star dreams are real and he will continue to pursue them despite naysayers.
"The transition from one career to another is never seamless. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Joaquin came from a musical family, in addition to winning a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash," Patricola wrote in an e-mail. "He intends on exploring his musical interests despite speculative, negative or positive reactions."
That doesn't exactly put the matter to rest. According to Entertainment Weekly's Web site, EW.com, which reported the alleged hoax, Phoenix's reps could be in on it. EW.com quoted a former co-worker who said Phoenix told him, "'It's a put-on. I'm going to pretend to have a meltdown and change careers, and Casey [Affleck] is going to film it."
That would make Affleck an accomplice; he's also an actor, Ben Affleck's brother and Phoenix's brother-in-law -- he's married to Phoenix's sister Summer.
Casey Affleck is helming a documentary about Phoenix's foray into music and was in Vegas, along with two other cameramen, shooting Phoenix's performance.
It's also possible that P. Diddy is in on the hoax. According to media reports, Diddy is producing Phoenix's rap album. At first his rep said she was unaware of his involvement but later she sent ABCNews.com an e-mail saying, "I cannot comment on this at this time."
Several other rappers contacted by ABCNews.com refused to go on the record commenting about Phoenix's new career path.
Snedegar told ABCNews.com that he is starting to have doubts.
"I'm not sure, to be honest. There were moments when I looked at him and I thought, 'I can't believe he's doing this,'" he said. "Then, there were moments he seemed to be very serious."
Apparently Phoenix was prepared to not be taken seriously. He told People magazine before his performance: "Are there people out there who think I'm a joke? I'm sure there will be. Are there people who think it's going to suck? Probably, but I can't worry about that."
And now the former A-list actor has revealed that the music he's been working on is none other than hip-hop.
Hip-hop may seem like an odd fit for Phoenix, who, three years ago, received an Oscar nod for his portrayal of singer Johnny Cash. Not so, he explained to People magazine: "When I was young I liked punk rock music but then I discovered rap. I love the storytelling aspect of hip-hop."
"After all the years of reading scripts and reading lines, this is my chance to do something straight from the heart and put it out there," he told People. "This is me saying this is who I am. This is my story."
But will people want to hear what he has to say?
Snedegar thinks people will tune in, at least initially. About 500 people -- some fans, some skeptics -- turned out for his first performance, Snedegar said.
"He's definitely going to make waves with his performance because people are curious," he said. "It just depends on how people accept him."
That includes his shaggy new look. "I was surprised by his appearance," Snedegar said, referring to Phoenix's bushy beard, dark shades, baggy sweater and torn gray knit cap. "Everybody was. He was dressed very laid back, a beachy vibe with loose pants, a big sweater and a cap on most of the time. He looked like he had gained a little weight."