For any Lin-Manuel Miranda fans whose hearts sank almost as quickly as they rose upon hearing that, yes, there’s a “Hamilton” movie, and no, it won’t be out for another 20 months, succor may be on the way in the form of a probably faster-arriving movie that features Miranda in almost as big a role, playing himself. “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” which bowed at the Sundance Film Festival, is ostensibly the history of an improvisational comedy-hip-hip troupe that Miranda co-founded and occasionally still jumps into. But the doc also serves as an effective origin story for “In the Heights” and ultimately “Hamilton,” not just because some other members of the collective went on to be part of those productions, too, but because you can see how the rhyming sensibilities that were put to use for laughs in Freestyle Love Supreme’s intimate shows turned into the unlikely stuff of Broadway smashes.
To its credit, the film takes a while to even getting around to identifying Miranda by name on screen, much less invoking the specter of the presidential musical that will be one of the end results of all this. “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” cuts back and forth between contemporary footage of the group preparing for a run of reunion shows and videotape of their original modest heyday in the mid-2000s. Miranda and cohorts Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale were not all that far gone from their undergrad days at Wesleyan when they founded the troupe to combine their “theater nerd” aspirations with their rap adoration.
If you stumbled upon the movie unawares on cable, you might just be thinking that one of the cast members looked a little familiar in what initially seems to be the members of an over-the-hill gang getting back together to relive youthful glories one last time. Kail, the group’s director, admits to the camera that now that they’re all hovering a little above or below the age of 40, this might represent one of the last chances they’ll have to get away with credibly rapping on stage. Miranda’s name and celebrity status really aren’t acknowledged at all until a moment when one of the members says that, in their upcoming performances, they should adjust their timing to allow for the fact that “Lin” may get a bit more extended audience response than everybody else.
Once the movie drops that not-so-secret secret — that “a lot of people in Freestyle Love Supreme are shaping what the American theater looks like now,” and that there is a superstar among equals here — it doesn’t stint on giving Miranda fans about as much up-close-and-personal time with him as they could wish for. It also does a pretty good job of establishing the talents and basic personalities of the original six-man ensemble. (With comings and goings, more than a dozen performers have come to be part of Freestyle Love Supreme at one time or another — finally including the addition of two women in the most recent incarnation, which just wrapped up a three-month run in Broadway’s Booth Theater just last month.)
It might be a stretch to call them “the Beatles of improv-comedy-rap,” just because, by nature, improvisation is meant to be ephemeral and done in a small space. But there’s definitely a sense in which you feel how unlikely and miraculous it is when a group of friends with more or less evenly matched brilliance happen to be in the same place at the same time. That relatively few people will have ever gotten to see one of their shows is made up for, a little, by this document, but mostly by its ultimate outgrowth in the not-quite-as-funny “Hamilton,” which was directed by Kail and had FSL’s house balladeer, Christopher Jackson, as one of that stage blockbuster’s original stars.
Kudos to first-time feature director Andrew Fried for having the foresight to turn the cameras on his friends back when they were humbly traveling to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — and to set it up so that they read their first bad reviews there out loud (something Miranda didn’t have to get too accustomed to) — and to have filmed Miranda and Kail on their way to “In the Heights” rehearsals in Times Square, joking about how they’ll never get recognized in public. The movie is almost relentlessly feel-good and, to be fair, it’s not easy to suss what there’d be to feel bad about here. The doc has its one moment of reckoning when we find out that FSL member Utkarsh Ambudkar starred in “Hamilton” workshops and was pegged to play Aaron Burr but got the axe because of his partying ways. (Missing that shot was a step toward the rapper-actor being four years sober at the time of his interview.)
Other darker shadings are hard to come by in an ensemble story where just about everybody comes off as a mensch — most of all Miranda, who, as Kail points out, does not let little plaudits like his Tonys and MacArthur Genius grant get in the way of returning to the troupe and getting down on all fours to play an epileptic dog. Everything about not just him and the other group members but their work seems humble and warm-hearted — an anomaly, perhaps, in the worlds of rap, comedy and maybe even the legit stage. It’s about as sweet to see friendship survive success as it is to see Lin-Manuel Miranda as the world’s most adorkable Beastie Boy.