'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme': Lin-Manuel Miranda shines with fellow stars in Hulu's powerful documentary
Spoilers for 'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme'
'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme' is one of the most highly anticipated music documentaries in recent memory, finally dropping on Hulu on July 17 after its original June 5 release date was postponed due to last month's Black Lives Matter protests. This intimate 85-minute documentary by Andrew Fried takes an up-close and personal look at the origin story of the spectacular improvisational rap ensemble, Freestyle Love Supreme, many of whose members later went on to become Broadway royalty.
Heading the list of these famous talents is Lin Manuel Miranda, the creative force behind the multiple Tony-winning productions of 'Hamilton' and 'In The Heights'. But before he went on to pen the lyrics for these celebrated shows, Miranda was forging rhymes off the top of his head with a group of like-minded creative geniuses who loved hip-hop and improvisational comedy in equal measure. As we get to know more of the group's backstory and witness their lightning-fast skills firsthand, we come to realize that Lin Manuel Miranda was merely just another star in this dazzling constellation of otherworldly talent.
The seeds of Freestyle Love Supreme were sown in the early 2000s when Thomas Kail (who directed both 'In the Heights' and 'Hamilton') and his frequent creative collaborator at Wesleyan University, Anthony "Two-Touch" Veneziale (who also worked on 'In The Heights') formed a production company called Back House Productions in New York with their friends. Having once kept themselves awake during a road trip by freestyling over a Daft Punk song for four straight hours, it was clear that improvisational skills were already in the duo's blood. After roping in another "really good freestyler" and fellow Wesleyan alumnus in Lin-Manuel Miranda, the core of the improv rap group began to take shape, as they began honing their craft in the basement of the Drama Book Shop, where Back House Productions housed their operations.
Freestyle Love Supreme soon grew to be a collective, as the founding trio were joined by other talented friends such as Miranda's musically-minded roommate Bill Sherman (In the Heights, Hamilton, and Sesame Street), Christopher Jackson (In the Heights, Hamilton), the beatboxer Chris "Shockwave" Sullivan (The Electric Company), the musician Arthur "The Geniuses" Lewis (Joel and Arthur), Andrew "Jelly Donut" Bancroft (Moondrunk), Utkarsh "UTK" Ambudkar (The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect) and James Monroe Iglehart (Hamilton, Aladdin). The group's first performance was in August 2003 for about 20 people in the basement of the Drama Book Shop, and the hype and excitement quickly spread from there.
Drawn together by their shared love for verbal rhythms and comedic flow, delivered on the go, the friendly collective would bounce ideas and cues off each other, rapping about anything from pet peeves & bad days to ice cream & batteries and everything in between. No topic was off-limits, and they would spit bars at every conceivable location, from lonely bus stops to packed events like the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The group's sheer inventiveness, dexterity, chemistry, and infectious energy even in those early days is a joy to behold, and it's clear that they were passionate about what they did, and wanted to make it more accessible to a larger audience. With the help of their architect-in-chief Thomas Kail, the group started performing together as a rotating cast whenever their schedules would allow it and continued to entertain thousands of people as Freestyle Love Supreme over the next 15 years. “If you go to see Freestyle, you can see the DNA of 'In the Heights' and 'Hamilton',” Kail reveals, and it's clear that together, this group of friends helped spark and foster a creative spirit that has left a monumental mark on the American entertainment industry.
The director Andrew Fried first started capturing home videos of the talented improv crew back in 2005, and these clips, along with backstage footage and interviews conducted during their off-Broadway reunion 15 years later, form the bulk of the documentary, as each member is given screen time and traces the group's evolution from their early fledgling days to the stars they have now become in their 40s. We also get to appreciate different facets of the multi-talented collective thanks to this documentary. Lin-Manuel Miranda's quick poetic mind makes him the ultimate rhyme nerd, Arthur Lewis is the mysterious and introspective musical genius, while Chris Sullivan is the beatboxer who gives the most with his performances.
We also learn that the sweet-voiced Chris Jackson is revered for his maturity and openness, James Monroe Iglehart has comedic chops that rival his soulful delivery, and Anthony Veneziale's confidence and amiable vibe make him the perfect MC and host for their shows. The shows themselves are free-form comedy masterpieces, where the members of Freestyle Love Supreme take suggestions from the audience, spontaneously riff on them, and even deconstruct topics and reassemble them into different contexts entirely.
Despite all this jovial goofing around and lightheartedness, the documentary also touches on some dark topics. We learn that Utkarsh Ambudkar, the group's best rapper by far, was actually slated to play Aaron Burr in the early workshops for 'Hamilton', but eventually lost the part due to his drinking vices. However, his redemptive arc is complete by the end of the feature, as Ambudkar launches into a virtuosic tale of his successful path to sobriety, easily the best rap performance in the entire film.
The documentary also gently skirts around the rift that briefly formed between Freestyle Love Supreme's director Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale, although the pair now seem to have buried the hatchet and rescued their friendship before it all turned sour. And in the end, that's what this documentary is all about, a group of close-knit friends who bonded over their love for improv comedy and hip-hop and became superstars over the next 15 years. "I think we decided to get back together because it's probably the purest expression of joy that any of us have ever felt," admitted Thomas Kail, speaking about their off-Broadway reunion shows in 2019.
After a five-week reunion run at New York’s Greenwich House Theater, Freestyle Love Supreme went on to make a limited run of Broadway shows (directed by Kail) in the fall of 2019, with a core cast of Andrew Bancroft, Aneesa Folds, Arthur Lewis, Kaila Mullady, Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale and Utkarsh Ambudkar.
Special guests have included stars like Jimmy Fallon, Wayne Brady, Daveed Diggs, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, James Monroe Iglehart, Christopher Jackson, Alex Lacamoire, Sarah Kay, Bill Sherman, and of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Freestyle Love Supreme made its final Broadway appearance in January 2020 and also appeared at the SF Sketchfest in San Francisco that same month. But you can never rule out a special one-off reunion sometime in the future because if there's anything we've learned from this documentary, Freestyle Love Supreme are in the improv rap game for the sheer love of it all.