Will Smith is not the first person with that forename to propel an unaccompanied synonym for resolve onto the cover of his memoir. It is only two years since Will Self released his own Will, but, with respect to that loquacious author, the former Fresh Prince has the edge on fanatical determination.
“I would be the golden child,” he explains early on. “It was going to be the performance of a lifetime. And over the next forty years, I would never break character. Not Once.” The drive sustains him from childhood in middle-class Philadelphia to hip-hop success to a brief career slump and on to life as the biggest movie star on the planet. Twenty pages of this book could make Napoleon feel unmotivated.
I have some experience of that commitment. A decade and a half ago, I saw Smith boss a press conference as if it were a Fresh Prince gig. When a tape recorder gave out with an audible click, he picked it up and waved it at the hacks. “Who’s is this? Nobody? Man, you’re just embarrassed to claim it because it’s so old looking,” he bellowed.
Half an hour later, as I sat down for an interview, he immediately twigged I was from a snooty broadsheet, tweaked dials on the Will Console and delivered his answers in steady sentences that required no tidying up on their path to newsprint. If I had been from the New Scientist, I suspect he could have done half an hour on the then-incomplete Large Hadron Collider. Perhaps only Tom Cruise works harder at the ancillary requirements of stardom.
Few readers will be much surprised to hear that Will (the book) returns again and again to success and how it is achieved. What does set one back are the descriptions of a professional nosedive that struck in the late 1980s. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, the sharp duo that rode hip-hop’s opening waves, were no longer selling records and Will, still in his early 20s, was casting money about with lunatic abandon.
One expensive recording session was so unproductive that his manager, with no warning, flew in Smith’s fearsome dad to shake some sense into him. The Internal Revenue Service turned up with a bill for close to $3 million and the “golden child” looked to be finished. It seems hardly possible that even a callow version of Smith could allow such anarchy to rule. Maybe he is – or was – human after all.
He was saved when Quincy Jones pointed him towards the pilot for a sitcom called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It was a hit and the train never again left the tracks. “The universe had given me a second chance, and I swore to God that I would not need a third,” he writes in Will. The Almighty has, indeed, not been thus inconvenienced.
He talks movingly about the subtle discrimination he experienced at a largely white school and soberly about the more explicit racism he met elsewhere
Co-written with Mark Manson, the man behind “one of the largest personal-growth websites in the world”, the book reads as much like a self-help guide as a traditional celebrity memoir. To be fair, Smith’s extraordinary story does give him some permission to pontificate on how a chap might get ahead in life. He grew up in relative financial comfort, but his dad was a strict disciplinarian who handed on a drive for perfectionism to his kids. “After too many drinks, or if he snapped, he would burn everything to the ground,” Smith explains.
He talks movingly about the subtle discrimination he experienced at a largely white school and soberly about the more explicit racism he met elsewhere. “Every encounter I have had with overt racism was with people I estimated to be weak enemies at best,” Smith writes.
There is throughout a tension between his need to trumpet success and his unstoppable addiction to self-analysis. A chapter titled Perfection begins with a list of the box office totals for the films he made between 2002 and 2008. Smith writes: “What you’re looking at is arguably the greatest individual hot streak in the history of Hollywood. (Note: My editor forced me, against my will, to add ‘arguably’.)” The parenthetical addition suggest a half-step back from the brag.
One of the strangest anecdotes walks us through years of planning for his wife’s 40th birthday party. Sometime before Mary J Blige closed the show, the guests saw a video of the host’s surprise visit to descendants of the (apparently sporting) family who had owned Jada Pinkett Smith’s ancestors during slavery. Pardon? The yarn progresses in faintly triumphant fashion before closing with a furious rebuke from Jada. “That was the most disgusting display of ego I have ever seen in my life!” she yelled.
Will does seem to get it, and much of the remaining text is taken up with blather about personal healing and spiritual growth. Others may resist the rolling of eyes as, to the sound of “tribal chants and sacred melodies,” the Amazonian psychoactive brew Ayahuasca makes its way about his system, but this reviewer was unable to contain audible snorts.
Still, who are we to argue? Smith is not quite the draw he was when Independence Day and Men in Black were eating up the box office, but, if the bookies are right, he is set to walk away with this year’s best actor Oscar for his performance as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s well-reviewed King Richard.
He knows things we don’t.
Donald Clarke is film correspondent for The Irish Times