For years, the Freestyle Love Supreme experience was a “completely ephemeral” one, as founding member Thomas Kail puts it. Only those in the small, usually 99-seat, theaters who witnessed one of the hip-hop improv group’s shows live shared in the unique memory and magic of what they delivered. But through Andrew Fried’s documentary “We Are Love Supreme,” debuting on Hulu July 17, some of those performances have been given more permanence.
“It was like we were writing poetry and lighting it on fire. And later we ended up writing a couple of novels and people liked our novels,” Kail, who also executive produced the documentary, says of the difference between Freestyle Love Supreme’s shows and “In The Heights” and Hamilton.” “We thought, ‘Well, what if we go back and show them some of the poetry we wrote?’ It informed and infused the novels.”
As Freestyle Love Supreme founding member and “In The Heights” and “Hamilton” scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda explains it, improv-rapping with Freestyle Love Supreme “became this skill set that sharpened all of the other skill sets that were important to me. ‘96,000’ in ‘In The Heights’ was very much drawn from the back-and-forth of Freestyle Love Supreme. As I grew more confident as a writer, I grew more confident knowing that I would have something to say when I got up on stage to audience suggestions, and then performing with Freestyle sharpened my brain so I could infuse my writing with spontaneity.”
Fried’s documentary follows Freestyle Love Supreme in its early days, including performing at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, but also tracks such slightly-later successes as “In The Heights,” new members including Utkarsh Ambudkar and its 2019 showcase at the Greenwich House Theater.
Fried is in a unique position as a filmmaker, in that he has had a decade-plus relationship with his subjects. He was first a fan after seeing one of the shows, he recalls, and “two weeks later I was sleeping on their couch” documenting their experience performing at the Edinburgh festival. At the time, he admits, he was “faking it ’til I made it” and that such documentary work was the first time he had truly field produced. He was shaping a story that he thought could be a television pilot about the group: Asking Miranda to read bad reviews aloud for camera, for example, came out of an instinct Fried had that the group would use material from what happened to them during the day in their nightly shows. “I thought maybe in the show that night they’d start rapping about a bad review and then I’d have an A-plot for the pilot,” Fried says.
But time had other plans. Yes, Freestyle Love Supreme went on to have a show with Pivot and even rebooted “The Electric Company,” but those were not experiences Fried had with the group.
“There’s a whole lot of the history of Freestyle Love Supreme that’s not in this movie,” he notes. “That wasn’t my story and that wasn’t what my footage could support, to be honest. My experience was far more personal than any other filmmaker could have, and so I wanted to lean into that.”
Only Fried, for example, had boxes of tapes and hard drives of footage that included Miranda busking in the street or Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing on stage together well before “In The Heights,” let alone “Hamilton.” He had early looks at Kail making his directorial debut, as well as Kail and Miranda workshopping “In The Heights.” And then there were early performances by Anthony Veneziale, Andrew Bancroft, Arthur Lewis, Bill Sherman and Chris Sullivan, too. Fried’s personal relationship with the group allowed for a trust and comfort level, he says, which in turn had him capturing candid moments of Miranda talking about leaving singledom behind and Ambudkar’s journey to get sober.
“That connection that you get on stage with with those people in particular, is unlike anything that I’ll have in my career. It’s just too special,” Ambudkar says. “There’s this talk at the very end of the movie where it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, this guy could have been in ‘Hamilton.’ But, I think the thing to take away is that the relationship of the guys has been so strong and so family first. Something that business-wise was probably an extreme letdown for Tommy and Lin, where they’re like, ‘We’ve brought this guy in and he couldn’t deliver,’ turned into the entire group galvanizing around me, linking arms and supporting me — along with everyone else in my life — during that very challenging time that I had to go through and still go through.”
It wasn’t until 2018, when the Off-Broadway run of Freestyle Love Supreme was being set up, that Kail says he called Fried and said, “‘Why don’t we finish the movie we were making 10, 15 years ago?’ And he said, ‘We were making a movie?’ And I said, ‘Well we are now.”
Looking back over the footage through their more mature lens gave them new appreciation for both their energy and spirit back in the day, as well as where it helped them get today.
“It felt like measuring on a door: ‘We were this high then and this is how much we’ve grown,'” Kail says.
Adds Ambudkar: “The first rap I ever did on stage was in Freestyle Love Supreme. And just to watch that dude, a young guy with his baggy, baggy pants just jumping so much, so much bravado, there’s so much movement in that body. When you see later footage of m there’s a lot less of that fluidity, but there’s more polish to it. I kind of miss the exuberance of that kid, but I know that the mind is much sharper than it used to be.”
The one thing everyone involved in Freestyle Love Supreme knows is that nothing beats the vibe inside the theater during a live performance. Miranda admits that seeing the same piece played out on-screen can come with “a degree of skepticism.” That’s why it was so important for him that “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” “deconstructed and peeled back as much of the process as possible.”
“Wouldn’t that be so freeing, to really be able to say whatever’s in your head, understanding that it stays within that pre-2005 sensibility of, ‘This is for those of us in the room’?” Miranda says of the group’s approach to live shows. “Not only was the show so dependent on us listening to the audience and the audience listening to us, but when we do the show now, we’re putting you in a time machine.”
And the fact that “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” is launching just weeks after the “Hamilton” movie made its own debut is not lost on Miranda. But he calls the timing “total serendipity.”
“There’s this documentary about this thing we were all doing first, and I think they pair very nicely. It’s so interesting to see what we come up with in real time and then contrast that with a musical it took me seven years to write,” he says.