So there is Lin-Manuel Miranda, ten years before “Hamilton,” three years before even “In The Heights,” galloping across the street to join his fellow members of Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop improv group, who have just frightened a little girl in a purple coat by spontaneously rapping about her at a bus stop in Greenwich Village.
As the girl hugs her mother, Freestyle co-founder Anthony Veneziale continues:
Oh no she got afraid
It’s ok Chris
Sing something that you made
And then Christopher Jackson, the future George Washington, takes it up:
Hope you’re not shy
Just sitting around waiting on five nice guys
Two observations about that first scene, filmed way back in 2005, of “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” a new 80-minute documentary that’s now on Hulu:
First, there is something frightening about the talent of this group, who make up rhymes in a rap rhythm on the spot (which is the definition of “freestyling”), formed 17 years ago by Wesleyan schoolmates Miranda, Veneziale and Tommy Kail (who went on to direct “In The Heights” and “Hamilton.”)
Second, there is a shock of recognition here, which I feel doubly because this scene happens to take place ON MY BLOCK. That’s a coincidence, but it somehow seemed apt, since what this documentary offers is the opportunity to revisit something familiar. What doesn’t seem to be a coincidence is its debut on Hulu exactly two weeks after the debut of “Hamilton” on Disney+. If “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” is unlikely to do for Hulu what “Hamilton” did for Disney+, it does serve as a kind of follow-up for fans. Or, more precisely, it often feels like one of those “making-of” sort-of docs that are created for promotional purposes.
The film reflects Miranda and company’s trademark mix of charm and hype. In talking-head commentary sprinkled throughout, the rappers describe each other like press agents plugging a client. At one point, Kail says of Veneziale (using his rap alias): “Two-Touch is the heart and soul, quite simply he is, he’s the engine, he’s the guts and the blood of Freestyle Love Supreme.” Later, in what could be an awkward effort to get more real, both Kail and Veneziale talk about how they’ve grown more distant from one another.
The film implicitly acknowledges what its draw really is: the chance to see the “Hamilton” crew, especially Miranda, before – and on the cusp – of fame. In a couple of scenes, Kail and Miranda walk in the theater district toward the marquee of “In The Heights” at the Richard Rodgers, joking about how “unfamous” they are.
“Does anybody ever say you look like anybody?”Kail asks
“It’s always, like, their brother, their friend, or their cousin,” Miranda says.
“There’s a good chance nobody will ever know who you are.”
Ho-ho, the irony.
After brief scenes of Miranda dressing backstage for “Hamilton,” performing on stage, and fans lining up in the street, Miranda says in an interview for the documentary: “Writing Hamilton was the most frustrating and most cathartic thing in my life, because I knew it was my best work and I knew it would be ages before it was right.”
We do get a few brief glimpses of the actual FLS improv show, which had runs both Off Broadway and on Broadway last year. Highlights include a few seconds of Miranda on all fours playing an epileptic dog in Arizona, and the always remarkable James Monroe Iglehart mixing rap and r&b on stage. As I wrote in my review at the time, the FLS show is designed to feel good-natured and informal, like friends sitting around a dorm room at Wesleyan, even though there are 766 of us and we’re at Broadway’s Booth Theater. The film tries to replicate this tone, communicating the familial bond the performers feel for one another, and attempting to wrap us in it. If the improv itself obviously works better live and in person, there are raps we hear here that truly impress, and at least one moment that I found both fascinating and genuinely moving. The most talented freestyler in the group may be Utkarsh Ambudkar, aka UTK the INC. He tells us in this documentary that he was initially cast as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” – going so far as to portray Hamilton’s nemesis and narrator in several workshops. But he was replaced because he was drinking heavily. That failure, he says, got him to stop drinking. Or, as we see him rap during one performance:
But now I’m making a new way and that pain is over
I’m four years sober, and living wonderfully