Hamilton might’ve made Lin-Manuel Miranda a household name, but before the multi-award-winning playwright made it big, he was a member of the improv comedy/hip-hop troupe Freestyle Love Supreme. In fact, he still is. But his success is only a footnote compared to the many stories told in Hulu’s latest documentary, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme.
The film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, chronicles the group’s origin as new and old members meet up to perform reunion shows in early 2019. While the show would also make its Broadway debut later that year, the documentary is less interested in that venture and more interested in what’s kept the troupe thriving throughout the years. That deep dive was one of my favorite parts of this documentary. While it’s hard to discuss the show without mentioning Miranda, every single person involved with it – aside from him – is introduced and acknowledged for their contributions.
One of the most important members is Thomas Kail, whose name most might recognize from the the live stage recording of Hamilton recently released on Disney+. Not only did he direct that, but he directed the actual musical too. He, along with Miranda and Anthony Veneziale, are the creators of Freestyle Love Supreme, yet he’s the only one who doesn’t perform in the show. Instead, he’s got a knack for making sense of the chaos onstage, as one member states. Because of that, he knows all of the members in a unique way and is better able to illustrate them through the stories and experiences he shares in the film.
Now, Miranda may be the biggest name to originate from the show, but he’s certainly not the most talented. The group’s alums consist of Tony Award winners Daveed Diggs and James Monroe Igleheart, as well as the always unforgettable on-screen Utkarsh Ambudkar. But even those guys take a backseat to the relative unknowns responsible for the show’s technical aspects. From Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan, the guy who beatboxes for the entire show, to Arthur “The Geniuses” Lewis, the guy who composes each show’s music on his piano off the top of his head, you learn every cog in the machine. Like the improv shows the group puts on, this documentary gives everyone an equal opportunity to shine.
That’s only one way this film immerses the audience. Through both old footage of what the show was like in its infancy and new footage of what the show has evolved into, you feel like you’re actually in the audience at times. Well, I did anyway.
The interviews with the cast are equally immersive, but in a different way. Instead of making you feel like you’re watching a show, they take you along the cast’s journey. From the opening flashback to them freestyling on the streets of New York City when no one knew who they were to their fateful excursion to Europe to debut their show to their first official shows Off-Broadway, you feel like you’re right beside them making history.
As great and as inspirational as this film is though, it’s not without flaws. My biggest issue with it is that is becomes a bit too centered around Miranda towards the end. While it becomes abundantly clear that Freestyle Love Supreme was the catalyst for his ascendancy to fame, there’s this brief moment in the documentary where Hamilton’s success overshadows Freestyle Love Supreme’s. While no one could have foreseen how much of a pop culture juggernaut it would become, its emphasis feels totally out of place.
Towards the end there’s also this segment where some of the members talk about how they’ve all grown apart from the group in different ways as they’ve gotten older. It felt like an unnecessary attempt to antagonize the group and create the illusion of drama. It undermines the unity that the documentary is trying to celebrate. Fortunately it fails because even when talking about how certain members have changed, they all have so much respect for each other that no one really cares. Everyone understands the importance of family because above everything it’s its own family.
By the end of the documentary it’s apparent that nothing can tear this troupe apart. Therein lies the key to its long lasting success. Of all the words in its abstract name, the one that holds the most weight and the one that each member aims to manifest both on and offstage is its second one: LOVE.