'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An ebullient origin story.

Andrew Fried charts the history of the hip-hop improv group that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail among its founders, which helped shape both 'In the Heights' and 'Hamilton.'

Improvisational theater is described at various times in We Are Freestyle Love Supreme as an adrenalized, unsafe situation and a unique communion among the performers and the audience. That excitement and immediacy comes across in Andrew Fried's lovingly assembled documentary record of the hip-hop improv group's 15-year evolution. Touching on the influence of the wildly talented collective's work on bigger projects like In the Heights and Hamilton, the film amply channels the drive and enthusiasm of FLS co-founder Lin-Manuel Miranda. What's most refreshing, though, is its egalitarian appreciation of the distinctive gifts of the entire crew — not just the supernova hardly suffering from underexposure.

Thomas Kail, the director who created the group with Miranda and frontman MC Anthony Veneziale, calls FLS "the purest expression of joy any of us have ever felt." The core value of friendship — a group of guys getting together to play like eternal beatboxing kids, using their verbal and musical dexterity to explore their own lives and those of others, and by extension, to celebrate the human spirit — animates this entertaining chronicle. It's warm and personal, but sharp enough to know when to show a few bumps in the road of the mutual admiration society.

The group was first conceived when Veneziale got Kail involved in his improv shows while both were in college at Wesleyan; in order to stay awake during a drive from Connecticut to Ohio, the two freestyled for four hours straight to the instrumental version of Daft Punk's "Around the World" and the kernel of FLS was born, solidifying once Miranda joined. Others followed and the act was developed primarily in the basement of New York's Drama Book Shop, which became both their lab and their initial performance space.

Fried started filming FLS in summer 2005, following them to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they promoted the show in street performances and then shaped it in front of audiences that grew little by little each night. The impetus to revisit that footage and weave it into a larger history of the group came when FLS reunited after a long break for "one last ride" with a limited off-Broadway engagement early last year. The success of that run led to a profitable Broadway move, with their arrival at the Booth Theatre providing a suitable bookend. There's also a poignant element in men now around age 40 resuming what they started in their youth, bringing greater maturity and an expanded worldview.

It's a minor disappointment that the addition for Broadway to the lineup of women like Aneesa Folds and Kaila Mullady is overlooked, particularly since the cultural diversity of the ensemble is such an essential element. The impression that this is a boy's club is somewhat tempered by the show's audience-participation components, which highlight its inclusivity.

Alongside nimble showman Veneziale and self-confessed "rhyme dork" Miranda, the key early lineup included sound effects specialist Chris Sullivan, a foley artist who uses nothing but his voice; Christopher Jackson, who brought his silky-smooth vocals; and musicians Arthur Lewis and Bill Sherman, respectively on keyboards and beats. Kail is identified as the architect — "someone who can make sense out of chaos." Writer-editors Brian Anton and Peter Curtis don't always follow that principle with this doc, but its nonlinear structure is always lively.

Once charter members Jackson and Miranda got busy with the latter's breakthrough musical, In the Heights, replacements had to be recruited, which led to the addition of James Monroe Iglehart's soulful vocals and sly comic presence, and Utkarsh Ambudkar's virtuoso rapping skills.

With Kail often providing useful perspective from offstage, each performer's specific skill set is elaborated, and all of them make fun, illuminating interviewees, expressing both the adventurous ethos of the group and the personal rewards of their role in it. But Ambudkar arguably is the standout, explaining how FLS fit him "like a well-worn hoodie" at age 20, allowing him to stir Indian and South Asian experience into the mix.

In a segment of the show built around a word provided by the audience, Ambudkar's job is to flip the meaning, which we witness here in a hilarious riff that turns "vibrator" into "vibe rater." In similar fashion, an audience member from Arizona shares a story about her epileptic German Shepherd named Ramona, which becomes fodder for a priceless rap from Ambudkar accompanied by Miranda on all fours as the dog. The level of speedy wit and spontaneity in the performance clips is a constant delight.

Ambudkar played Aaron Burr in some of the earliest incarnations of Hamilton, but his problems with alcohol and partying back then ("I was a husk of a person," he admits with moving candor) prevented him from sticking with the project. Kail observes that in terms of where he started and where he is now, Ambudkar, who has been sober for four years, has traveled the largest arc in the group.

Another regular segment of the show called "A Day in the Life" allows the doc to showcase Veneziale's consummate skill as a host, kneeling by strangers plucked from the audience, establishing trust and making them feel safe as he coaxes forth details of their day. Perhaps the most disarming of the clips is one featuring 79-year-old audience recruit Nancy Hillman, who describes her dogged progress on a New York Times Sunday crossword she's been working on for months. The end credits feature a lovely acknowledgement of Hillman, who died last year.

There's also a bittersweet factor in hearing Veneziale and Kail discuss their falling out, which demonstrates how divergent paths can reshape relationships. Rifts notwithstanding, the point is made repeatedly that while FLS got pushed to the back-burner by its members' various other career pursuits, it never went away. The 2019 New York reunion shows give the impression of any distances that formed instantly evaporating.

For fans of In the Heights and Hamilton, there are brief but satisfying detours into the incubation of those shows, with the creatives — Miranda first and foremost — readily acknowledging how much the energy and language skills of the FLS experience fed the development of the musicals. The hip-hop improv group will always be a side-journey for these artists who have gone on to make significant contributions to American theater, film, television and music. But Fried's film shows that it's one worth exploring.

Production companies: Boardwalk Pictures, Old 320 Sycamore, Ars Nova, Jill Furman Productions, Viajes Miranda, in association with Radical Media
With: Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, James Monroe Iglehart, Christopher Jackson, Thomas Kail, Arthur Lewis, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bill Sherman, Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale
Director: Andrew Fried
Writers: Brian Anton, Peter Curtis
Producers: Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jenny & Jon Steingart, Jill Furman, Sarina Roma, Andrew Fried
Executive producers: Jon Kamen, Dane Lillegard, Jordan Wynn
Director of photography: Bryant Fisher
Music: J.R. Kaufman
Editors: Brian Anton, Peter Curtis
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)

Sales: Endeavor Content

82 minutes