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."
From the Silver Screen to the Music Scene
Snedegar said some of the raps' lyrics were about Phoenix leaving acting to become a rapper and growing up in San Francisco, but, for the most part, he had trouble understanding them.
"When he first got on, there was a small sound adjustment -- you had to wait 20 seconds before you could hear him," he said. "Then he started talking, the playback went in and he kept on rhythm. But you couldn't really understand what he was saying. I think he was holding the microphone too far away."
Stunt or not, Phoenix certainly appears serious about his new career. About to go on stage in October for a play benefiting Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Camps, he told "Extra": "I want to take this opportunity ... also to give you the exclusive and just talk a little bit about the fact that this will be my last performance as an actor. I'm not doing films anymore. … I'm working on my music. I'm done. I've been through that."
The surprises did not end there. Next came Phoenix's bearded, bloated appearance at a party in December.
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."
Phoenix's dramatically different appearance, coupled with reports of erratic behavior, have some worried that the former leading man is headed for the same self-destructive path as his older brother, the late actor River Phoenix.
"Given his actions, he [Joaquin] is starting to look a lot like his brother," Ian Drew, editor at large at US Weekly, told ABCNews.com. "It does make you question how his story is going to end -- or continue."
River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in October 1993 after collapsing outside the Johnny Depp-owned Viper Room nightclub in Los Angeles.
The then-19-year-old Joaquin, who was at the club along with their sister Summer, made the 911 call to try to save his 23-year-old brother's life.
"Joaquin is definitely on a course right now," E! Online gossip columnist Ted Casablanca told ABCNews.com. "I don't know if it's self-destruction or self-derailing. But he's obviously going through some sort of tortured episode in his life. It's a cry for help."
"He's obviously a deep guy with some dark reference points," Drew said. "There's obviously a shadow over his life. He's had problems played out on the public stage."
In 2005, after filming the Cash biopic "Walk the Line," Phoenix entered rehab for alcohol abuse. He told reporters afterward that he started drinking more while playing Cash.
"It was then that I became aware of my drinking. I wasn't an everyday drinker but didn't have anything else to do, anything to hold me down," he said. "I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK. That's what it really was."
Publicist Patricola quashed any rumors that Phoenix is self-destructing.
She told ABCNews.com, "He is fine and doing his music," but would not go into detail. "When Joaquin has more to say, I'm sure he will," she said.
Snedegar said Phoenix appeared fine the night he performed. "Every time I spoke to him he was coherent, polite. He was low key but open to the fans."
Even though Phoenix's agent had booked the gig a couple weeks before, it was still undecided whether he would perform that night. The evening started with a specially prepared vegan dinner for Phoenix and 20 friends, including Affleck, at the Palazzo Resort Hotel and Casino.
The group then moved upstairs to Lavo, Snedegar says, where they sat at a table in front of a catwalk with a microphone, in case Phoenix decided to perform.
Chronicles of Joaquin Phoenix
A member of Affleck's documentary crew gave the signal: Phoenix was ready to go on.
"I don't know if I would say he's a natural," Snedegar added. "He isn't horrible. He can keep on beat. He was kind of dancing and on rhythm and that was good."
Phoenix, who seemed tentative at first, Snedegar said, soon warmed up during the course of the three raps, strutting the catwalk and, by the end, jumping up and down and thanking his audience profusely. "You hold a very special place in my heart," he told the crowd.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline that made him miss a step as he was leaving the catwalk and fall into the audience, where he landed on his feet.
"He took pictures with fans, hung out another hour," Snedegar said. "His friends were hugging him. He seemed very happy."
And if it's all an act, another source told EW.com, don't expect him to break character any time soon.
"It's an art project for him," the source said. "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."