Monday, January 8, 2007

Movies, Big Willie Style

To sample the Fresh Prince himself, “Okay, now here¹s the situation: Will Smith starred first in Six Degrees of Separation.” Based on John Guare’s play of the same name, Six Degrees was a 1993 art house favorite that proved that Will Smith, who had only acted in the nonthreatening sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air prior, truly had the chops to carry a feature film.

However, Six Degrees gave little indication of the massive popularity to come. Within a few short years, Will Smith would star in two of the top-grossing films in motion picture history, Independence Day and Men In Black. Even in this summer of The Phantom Menace, his forthcoming Wild Wild West is expected to break box office records. Smith, of course, was no stranger to unexpected success when Independence Day catapulted him into superstardom.

In 1987, Smith (as The Fresh Prince) and his partner-in-rhyme DJ Jazzy Jeff burst on the music scene with “I’m The DJ, He¹s The Rapper.” It was a pivotal moment in rap’s coming-of-age. Old School stylings had evolved into more intricate beats, samples and lyrical meters, with hardcore political rhymes and proto-gangsta snapshots of thug life replacing proclamations of diss-dain for sucka MC’s. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince chose to present a kinder, gentler hip hop image. Their positive message struck a chord with mainstream audiences -- a chord that resonated as genuine versus the manufactured pabulum of most overhyped crossover rap artists.

Over the course of the next few years and albums, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince began to mine the rich heritage of soul music they had heard growing up in Philadelphia. They appropriated interesting and forgotten licks, riffs, and choruses for their hooky singles, the most memorable of which is the anthemic “Summertime.” This song became an instant backyard barbeque classic, invoking nostalgia for the endless summer days of youth. Perhaps it also served as omen for Smith’s destiny to reign as King of the Summer Blockbusters.

While continuing to cut hugely successful albums, Will Smith starred in the Quincy Jones-produced sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Smith’s likeable personality radiated on-camera. He was funny, articulate and handsome. It wasn’t long before he was plumbed for the Big Screen -- first in the Marc Rocco film Where The Day Takes You, followed the next year by his surprisingly captivating performance in Six Degrees of Separation. No one expected the star of a family sitcom -- much less a rapper -- to pull off portraying a delusional gay murderer and thief so deftly. But rather than follow up Six Degrees with more of the same, Smith parlayed his critical acclaim into a starring role opposite Martin Lawrence in the surprise hit Bad Boys.

The success of Bad Boys propelled Smith into the spotlight as a potential action-comedy star. In 1996, he was packaged in the Roland Emmerich/Dean sci-fi effects-a-thon Independence Day. But while ID4 was structured as an ensemble film, Smith, as Captain Steven Hiller, clearly stole the show. ID4 grossed almost $800 million worldwide and confirmed Smith’s status as a reigning champion at the box office.

Smith soon became the hottest commodity in Hollywood. Barry Sonnenfeld was fortunate enough to secure him for a starring role in the adaptation of the cult comic book series Men In Black. In addition to performing the theme song, Smith donned black shoes, black slacks, black blazer, black tie and especially black sunglasses to star opposite Tommy Lee Jones as the MIBs, covert government operatives “protecting the earth from the scum of the universe.” Men In Black, which also opened over the July 4 holiday, grossed $84 million in its opening weekend alone, eventually pulling in $675 million worldwide. Indeed, Will Smith was a major draw at the box office and the top dog in Hollywood.

Smith took a break from opening summer blockbusters over the July 4 weekend with his next film Enemy Of The State, which hit theatres last November. In this stylish Tony Scott thriller, Smith eschewed his wisecracking joker persona to realistically portray a man caught in the web of a vast government conspiracy.

This summer, Smith is getting’ jiggy wit it as James T. West in the adaptation of the bizarre sixties sci-fi Western TV series Wild Wild West. Smith has big shoes to fill playing a role originated by Robert Conrad, but Smith is no stranger to filling big shoes. In his own words, “Who's the kid in the drop? Who else?! Will Smith! Livin' that life some consider a myth. Rock from South Street to One Two Fifth. Women used to tease me -- give it to me now nice and easy, since I moved up like George and Wheezy.”

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