Last night I saw Will Smith rap.
It's been so long since we saw Smith do anything-- four years since his last movie!-- that seeing him at all felt special, like a movie star from another era had suddenly reanimated, looking good as new. But even when DJ Jazzy Jeff was listed as the entertainment for the Men In Black 3 after party, held on the Intrepid aircraft carrier on the Hudson River at the most lavish party I have ever seen in my life, it seemed unwise to hope Smith would take the stage too. After all, DJ Jazzy Jeff has kept his stage name because he still has a career in music; The Fresh Prince has long since dropped his, and rather than even dabble in music, he's focused his attention on being the biggest movie star on earth.
At first, I thought my skepticism was warranted-- Pitbull took the stage first to perform his truly awful song from the Men In Black 3 soundtrack, which you can hear in full here or watch a snippet from last night's performance in the video below.
After that Jaden Smith took the stage, in one of the most elaborate jean jackets you've ever seen. The kid is only 14 years old, but he's also a movie star thanks to The Karate Kid, so I can't decide how fair it is to judge his musical talents. Suffice it to say I was unfavorably comparing his rap skills to his dad's when, suddenly, his dad took the stage! Joined not long after by Willow Smith, who had her own fame with "Whip My Hair" but who was content to dance onstage next to her brother and dad, like the world's tiniest hype man. Here was the view from where I stood crammed in a corner (unfortunately this was after Willow took off her awesome black and white Blossom-style hat):
Of course, the camera set up on a crane got a much better view of the show, so maybe you just want to watch that video below instead. As you can tell in the crowd shots, every second of this performance got recorded on someone's phone, including the performance of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme, which I honestly wish I'd recorded for myself. Search the Internet for those, or watch this one, but nothing will match the studio quality of the camera crew Sony very smartly set up.
A few hours earlier I had seen Men In Black 3 and was surprised not just to like it, but to be amazed all over again by Smith's comic timing, and the enormous charisma that hasn't faded one bit, even as he took a hiatus to start up careers for his kids and, I don't know, build sandcastles with all the money he's made over the years. In his absence Smith started to feel more like a brand than a human being, and definitely not like the skinny underdog who burst into pop culture in the early 90s and seemed incapable of making anything under than hits. But he seemed perfectly at home in the movie, and maybe even more so onstage, rapping with grace and commanding the stage the way only a seasoned performer can. I have no idea if he's been rehearsing or doing secret shows somewhere in Los Angeles, or if he just gets a mic in his hands and knows all the steps, like a world-class gymnast who never forgets every step on the balance beam.
Everything about the Men In Black 3 party was a little over the top, from the choice of the Intrepid as a venue to begin with-- we were drinking on an aircraft carrier-- to the fake Chinese restaurant and Jewish deli set up on board to the fireworks show that was presented as a tribute to the sailors and Marines invited to the party as part of Fleet Week (what's the intrinsic connection between the Men in Black franchise and the military, exactly?) But Will Smith's performance was a moment of genuine dazzle, a chance to see one of our best entertainers live, doing something that made him famous but he's rarely done since. I had to feel lucky to be there, even if I knew I was part of a machine, witnessing a fun moment between Smith and his two children that was also instrumental in marketing his massive, massively expensive new movie. They looked like they were having fun up there; I was definitely having fun, wearing heels on an aircraft carrier, surrounded by sailors and Marines and about a thousand other people who probably felt as out of place and lucky as I did.
For an even better look at the scale of this party, here's 5 minutes of B-roll taken on board the Intrepid, including video of some of the boldface names arriving (it's probably for the best that I didn't get close enough to Benedict Cumberbatch to say something embarrassing).