Film Review: We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Director: Andrew Fried
Streaming on Hulu 6.5
There’s an undeniable kinship between the world of theatrical improv comedy and hip-hop in terms of energy, raw creativity and willingness to take chances. It’s been years since I did an improv show, and even longer since I did a particularly good one. But I remember the energy and exhilaration that comes from a kick-ass night on the stage. For me, it was a combination of my years of doing improv and a general cultural awakening that made me drastically change my once very closed mind regarding the art of hip-hop. What I once turned away from, I now greatly respect as a masterful art form that, at its best, requires amazing skill and a visionary genius that I both envy and admire.
Long before becoming a household name for creating the Tony award–winning Broadway musicals Hamilton and In The Heights, a young performer named Lin-Manuel Miranda was in an improvisational hip-hop group called Freestyle Love Supreme, which started out beatboxing and rapping on sidewalks in the summer of 2005, and ultimately reunited 14 years later for a triumphant run on Broadway. Director Andrew Fried was there almost from the beginning, capturing it all, and he chronicles the evolution of the group in the documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme.
The story is told through interviews and extensive behind the scenes footage, and there are times when We Are Freestyle Love Supreme feels like it’s little more than the kind of “Making Of … ” special feature on a DVD or BluRay. A good improv troupe is built on trust and an almost stubborn insistence on treating your fellow performers as geniuses at all times in order to create the right atmosphere of collaboration and confidence. The result is that almost two-thirds of this movie is about listening to a mutual admiration society gush about each other and the genius of their work, and it does reach a point where it starts to feel insufferable. But then the human drama kicks into gear as Miranda found themselves at the epicenter of the theatrical universe with Hamilton while the others, for a variety of reasons, looked on from the outside. The great Utkarsh Ambudkar, known in the troupe as UTK, a phenomenal talent who came into the troupe late to substitute for Miranda, was originally meant to play the role Aaron Burr on Broadway, but life had other plans.
Stories such as this and a falling out between two founding members add an emotional heft that lifts the film just as it’s starting to feel stale. By the end, I felt that Fried had captured much of the essence of the collaborative experience, though it still feels a bit too rose-colored to be completely genuine—but I find this to be the case with most entertainment-based documentaries. We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is predominantly a film for fans of Miranda and of improv. If you fall into either category, it’s a must-see, but it’s more successful as a loving tribute than as an insightful or inspired piece of storytelling. –Patrick Gibbs