‘We Are Freestyle Love Supreme’: Before ‘Hamilton,’ There Was a Supergroup
In 2005, Andrew Fried met a group of young men who he’d seen perform a somewhat unclassifiable stage show. They took elements of Second City/UCB-style comedy, starting with gathering suggestions from the audience; scraps of paper with words were dropped into pails stationed at the front of the theater. Then they’d create on-the-spot, off-the-dome M.C. spiels around whatever they pulled from the bucket. Imagine battle raps, but friendlier and covering everything from comic books to daily commutes. The dual brainchild of two former Wesleyan students, Anthony Veneziale and Thomas Kail, this septet with the insane flow benefited from being a diverse mix of artists; one kid, a Puerto Rican theater nerd from Washington Heights, was especially quick-witted. They were an “improvisational hip-hop” troupe who called themselves Freestyle Love Supreme. They were leaving for Edinburgh to do some gigs at the Fringe Festival. Fried grabbed his camera and tagged along.
It’s fascinating to watch the footage of these twentysomethings bopping along in Scotland, singing on street corners to promote their shows, goofing around and cracking each other up. Ditto the informal, one-on-one interviews that Fried captured once the collective returned to New York. Not just because of the dexterous wordplay on display, or the god-level chops of their beatboxer-in-residence Shockwave (a.k.a. Chris Sullivan), or how they seamlessly function as a unit — all of which is evident in the (all-too-brief) performance footage we see. Rather, it’s because we’re watching two tales unfolding at the same time. One is a time capsule about a group of friends who innocently turned a creative game into an ongoing labor of love. The other is a superhero origin story. Unbeknownst to them, but well-known to us, three of these men will be part of not one but two gamechanging, Tony-winning plays. And one of them is going to become bright-lights, big-magazine-cover famous.
Covering 15 years, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme (streaming on Hulu starting July 17th) charts the history of the NYC collective that started out wowing tiny audiences in a bookstore’s basement and ended up selling out shows on Broadway. It also reminds you that this is where Lin-Manuel Miranda would hone his skill set and his stage presence to the point that he could execute the dense, dizzying raps that would characterize In the Heights and, more notably, Hamilton. The group’s MVP “poet” has a puppyish energy in these early clips, dashing across busy streets (you can hear his buddies yelling “Frogger!” off-camera) and practically vibrating as he raps about groceries, Madonna’s “Sorry,” jedis and padawans. Even his fellow freestylers seem starstruck by him. And like a lot of flashback stories that feel reverse-engineered by fate and irony, you can feel the movie leaning into an inevitable narrative. “There’s a good chance no one will ever know who you are,” Kail tells Miranda as they walk through Manhattan’s theater district. Then they hook a right, the director and the writer-star find themselves staring at a giant poster for In the Heights, set to open in roughly a month. Change is literally around the corner.
But while you can feel the group dynamic shift when the doc pivots to their 2019 downtown reunion shows — “When Lin does stuff, the audience is going to applaud for a long time, so be prepared for it,” the stage manager says — We Are Freestyle Love Supreme goes to great pains to underline that the crew’s camaraderie trumps all. Miranda has said that being onstage with FLS is one of the few places that feels purely pre-Hamilton to him, and you can see how happy he is just being around these guys again. At its best, the film makes for a great companion piece to the musical’s second coming as a pop-culture touchstone. (Hulu was set to premiere the film back in June before the group wisely delayed the doc’s streaming debut as protests over George Floyd’s death rocked the country. The fact that it now arrives on the heels of the much-discussed Disney+ performance movie feels oddly fortuitous.) You get the young, scrappy and hungry prequel to Miranda’s arrival as a music-theatrical genius and what happened after he took his shot.
It’s when the film tries to fashion more of a group portrait that things get a little shaky. You immediately pick up on the yin and yang balance between Veneziale and Kail, with the former generating a boundless, can-do momentum and the latter’s directorial ballast of how-do-we-make-this-work practicality. Veneziale’s decision to move to San Francisco with his family as things were taking off was viewed as a setback, and later, when he offered unsolicited notes to Kail on Hamilton right before its premiere at the Public Theater, it drove a wedge between the two. “There’s been a major change,” a teary Veneziale admits regarding their friendship, but the movie doesn’t do much to show you how, exactly, that change played out. The conflict is mentioned, then is more or less dropped and/or folded into Miranda, Kail and Christopher Jackson’s larger Hamilton-was-crazy discussion; it’s one of several nagging loose ends that the doc leaves dangling. Instead, the movie is simply content to be a mitzvah and just let all of the members say how great the others are over and over again. Any viewers allergic to gushing, abstract descriptions of people’s talents and theatrical touchy-feeliness should consult a doctor before watching.
Besides, checking out these guys doing what they do tells you so much more about them than sentimental backslapping. Yet the performance footage from both eras, while clearly the doc’s highlights, are doled out sparingly. There’s enough to sketch out a typical FLS show’s sections — an audience-participation segment called “A Day in the Life,” a confessional singalong called “True” — but not enough to give you a real feel for how they interact during these shows. When the movie does get around to the other freestylers, most of them are given rapid-fire mini-profilettes pumped up with platitudes. (James “J-Soul” Monroe Iglehart, a Tony winner in his own right who came in as a new member, barely gets to talk at all.) Only Utkarsh “UTK” Ambudkar gets a chance to stand out, and his story is compelling: A South Asian NYU grad who auditioned when Miranda & co. left to do Heights, he quickly established himself as the troupe’s secret weapon. He was also the original Aaron Burr during Hamilton‘s workshop phase, but a love of partying eventually sidelined him. His friends supported him getting sober, which he touches on during one snippet of a moving rap we witness. The guy deserves his own documentary.
There’s a bigger picture here that never quite comes in to focus as well, in regards to how a multiracial group of hip-hop fanatics took the subgenre of freestyling and helped integrate it into a downtown theater/improv scene — while eventually paving the way for hip-hop to go to Broadway, the last holdout in terms of recognizing the art form as our cultural lingua franca. Someone else will have to explore that notion in depth one day. What We Are Freestyle Love Supreme gives you is a story familiar to anyone who binges rock docs: Young, talented friends create something out of love; success and adulthood gets in the way; the show must go on, because really, this is bigger than all of us. As an introduction to who these guys are, the bond they share and the legacy they contributed to, it’s a better-than-decent primer. You simply wish it didn’t feel like one long, stop-and-start mic check.