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Review: Before ‘Hamilton’ there was Freestyle Love Supreme

Members of the improv theater/hip-hop collective Freestyle Love Supreme perform.
Members of the improv theater/hip-hop collective Freestyle Love Supreme perform in 2019.
(Bryant Fisher / Hulu)

The first “wow” moment comes in the documentary’s first minutes, when some talented freestyle rappers try to engage a little kid on a New York City street corner — it’s in fun, though they unintentionally frighten the child. Then they hoot and holler for their groupmate perilously running through heavy traffic to meet them: It’s a young Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Hulu’s “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” is a breezy, energizing and fun look at the hip-hop and improv theater collective that Miranda and his “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” collaborators director Tommy Kail and actor-singer Christopher Jackson belong to with a number of other talented artists. We’re warned up front by Miranda that life is nonlinear, and the film reflects that: We jump around over about 15 years to tell the story of the group’s founding by Kail and fellow Wesleyan alum Anthony Veneziale, the drafting of Miranda and the group’s ups and downs.

The film contains “Wow, they got that” footage from Freestyle Love Supreme’s early days, including its first big success (a booking at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival) and its days performing in a black-box theater in the basement of Manhattan’s revered Drama Book Shop. It also catches up with them today, during the Broadway run of their eponymous show last year. There are glimpses of the special bond the performers built over so many years of struggle and success. Mostly it captures them coming together to form a more powerful collective force, like a freestyle Voltron.

Their show is an improv night. With audience input, they deliver a new hip-hop experience every time — at such high levels of skill that, as one performer says when another comes up with a memorable melody on the spot, “That’s a hit.” The ride can be exhilarating.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda interviewed in "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme."
“If you want to tell a story with a happy ending, it depends on when you end the story,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda (paraphrasing Orson Welles) in “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme.”
(Bryant Fisher)

It’s not just the “Hamilton” folks who shine (Daveed Diggs also joined Freestyle Love Supreme but isn’t in the documentary) — each member has specific abilities and takes a turn blowing audiences away. For instance, Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan’s beatboxing is off the chain, but he’s not just a human drum machine: His deep connection to the others allows him to speed up, slow down, change it up on the fly and never seem to slip the groove. Veneziale is a nimble and responsive interface between audience and group. While Miranda’s verbal dexterity is well known, Utkarsh Ambudkar is right there with him and brings a staggering rhythmic gift to his flows. Jackson and Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart (also one of Diggs’ successors in “Hamilton”) can freestyle and sing the lights out.

Much more than the sum of the talented parts, however, it’s the alchemy that occurs when they feed off one another and the audience that makes the magic, and that forms an offstage family.

There are some cool time-capsule moments, as when Kail and Miranda are walking the streets before “In the Heights” makes its Broadway bow and Kail jokes to his friend, “There’s a good chance no one will ever know who you are.” There are also frustrating narrative gaps that will leave viewers with a fair number of “But what about … ?” queries.

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But most of all, there’s a charged awe over the special chemical reaction these excitable elements have when mixed together. It’s a good bet many / will be seeing if there’s any / chance with a boost from the Google machine … / to catch themselves some Freestyle Love Supreme.


'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme'

Not rated

Running Time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Available July 17 on Hulu

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Trailer for the Hulu documentary “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme”


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