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Hip-hop hooray – ‘We are Freestyle Love Supreme’

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When I first heard that Hulu was going to be airing a documentary about Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop improv troupe co-founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda and other notables in the mid-2000s, I knew that I had to review the film. I’m not going to say that I’m UNIQUELY suited, but I’d guess that few share these three qualifications:

  1.     I have been a film critic for a dozen years
  2.     I have been an improvisor for over a decade
  3.     I have won the “Downtown with Rich Kimball” Downtown Throwdown rap battle – twice.

So yeah – you could say that this one is in my wheelhouse.

“We are Freestyle Love Supreme” hit the streaming service on July 17 – it was originally scheduled to debut in early June but was postponed. Directed by Andrew Fried, it’s the story of the titular improv group, featuring footage filmed over the course of 15 years and the usual talking head-style interviews; we watch as the fresh-faced kids of the early aughts grow into men. Some of the troupe’s members go on to staggering amounts of professional success, but even those who don’t become household names are clearly wildly talented.

It’s about the show, yes – we get plenty of insight into what kind of show FLS puts on, as well as a sense of just how gifted the players are – but it’s also a look at their growth and evolution. We meet them as recent college grads just looking to have some fun with their friends; by the time we close, we’re watching a years-later sold-out reunion run on Broadway. We get to see the love and respect these people carry for one another and how this goofy little group has impacted their lives over the years.

The group got its start back in 2004, the same way many artistic collectives and collaborations start – like-minded people farting around while on a break from a different endeavor. For FLS, it was the freestyle throwdowns happening during rehearsal breaks for Miranda’s “In the Heights.” Many of the various core members had longtime personal and professional relationships – again, a familiar story for anyone who has put together an improv troupe (or a band or a theatre company or what have you); what they shared was a love of hip-hop and a desire to entertain.

Thus, in the basement of the Drama Book Store in New York City, Freestyle Love Supreme was born. Their shows steadily grew in popularity and the crew went on the road a few times, including to the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But here’s the thing – when you’ve got a group packed with talented individuals, things inevitably change.

It wasn’t just Miranda. Guys like Thomas Kail and Chris Jackson and Bill Sherman and James Monroe Iglehart were out there winning Tony Awards and making movies and penning TV music. But Freestyle Love Supreme never went away. Even as members went on to massive success, they never stopped loving the group – Miranda and Jackson and the other “In the Heights” players would rush out after performances to try and make it in time to play at the late FLS show.

Throughout the film, we move from early days footage to interviews to looks at the recent Off-Broadway and Broadway reunion shows. It all coalesces into a portrait of a moment of time where a group of tremendous talents found one another and embraced the opportunity to simply enjoy one another. There’s a tremendous and unwavering joy behind all of it – it’s a trip to watch interview footage of someone like Miranda in 2005 and in 2019 and to see literally zero diminishment of enthusiasm or excitement.

It all culminates in extended footage of some of the reunion performances, where players both old and new come together to bust freestyle rhymes and balls alike.

There’s a temptation to view “We are Freestyle Love Supreme” in terms of its most famous member – and it’s tough to argue that this film would exist without Miranda’s massive success – but Fried makes a real effort to strike a balance. We’re fortunate he resisted – that movie would not have been nearly as good as this one.

And it really is stunning to see the sheer talent in this group. Chris Jackson is a Broadway mainstay and Tony nominee (watch his George Washington in “Hamilton” – also on Hulu – if you haven’t yet). Thomas Kail is a longtime collaborator with Miranda – he directed “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” for the stage. James Monroe Iglehart won the Tony for playing the Genie in “Aladdin.” Utkarsh Ambudkar – who has starred on screen and stage – did the rap recap at this year’s Oscars ceremony. And on and on and on.

(For the record, as someone who has VERY occasionally attempted to freestyle in the context of improv comedy – it is HARD. Watching these guys spit back and forth is mesmerizing and hilarious, with everyone involved bringing energy and enthusiasm in equal measure. It’s a compelling crew; each of them is incredible, regardless of whether they went on to Broadway fame.)

“We are Freestyle Love Supreme” isn’t a particularly high-stakes documentary. It’s not a Lin-Manuel Miranda origin story. Instead, it’s a look at a group that assembled, through passion, circumstance and luck, one of the most impressive lineups of talent any 21st century stage has seen. But it’s also a look at the friendships that can blossom when like-minded creatives get together and d—k around.

Hip-hop hooray.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 19 July 2020 20:18

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