A surefire way to further sate your appetite for “Hamilton” (now on Disney+) and “In the Heights” (in theaters next year), Andrew Fried’s “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” is a fond look back at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other other claim to fame, an improv rap collective that was started by some dorky college boys back in 2005 and wound up changing the face of Broadway over the decade that followed. More accurately, this featherlight documentary is a nice and fluffy portrait of the friendship that’s kept Freestyle Love Supreme flowing for the last 15 years; Fried himself is a key part of that friendship, and his gentle time capsule prioritizes fondness over intimacy in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching someone write in his buddies’ yearbook. But if the film never aspires to be any heavier than one of FLS’ unscripted comedy shows, it would be wrong to write it off as a fans-only proposition — not when Fried so palpably captures the universal thrill of going out into the world and finding the people who give rhyme to your reason, and reason to your rhyme.
It’s rare that making a documentary seems like the obligatory thing for someone to do, but Fried was sitting on such a treasure trove of unseen home video footage from the group’s formative years that he didn’t really have any other choice. Even at its broadest and most self-congratulatory, “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” is the work of someone trying to commemorate a shared bond in a way that only he could. Fried started rolling 15 years ago, shortly after FLS first came together at Wesleyan (and if FLS can be considered a rap group, then it’s gotta be the most Wesleyan rap group of all time). He wasn’t in the car for the grueling road trip during which “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail and MC Anthony Veneziale — then mere college students — freestyled for hours on end and decided to join forces, but Fried had a front row seat for just about everything that happened after that.
The brunt of his archival footage comes from FLS’ 2005 trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where Kail and Veneziale put on some of their first shows alongside a hyper-excitable young Miranda and his golden-voiced George Washington, Christopher Jackson (one of the scenes from that Scottish adventure finds the future Tony honorees wincing at some of the only bad reviews they’ve received to this day). “Lin-Man” was a big bright shining star from the start — an affable Tony Stark to his crew of self-dubbed superheroes — but Fried gives plenty of love to less famous but equally gifted Avengers like Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan and Arthur “The Geniuses” Lewis, all of whom get some time to tell their stories via casual talking head interviews. It’s fun to watch these kids turn something out of nothing and spark joy in each other, even if that’s all we’re really doing here, and even if you’re the type of person who thinks that good improv is more painful than a bad sitcom.
Meanwhile, Fried takes us backstage during the 2019 reunion shows, which started off-Broadway before moving to a successful three-month stint at the Booth Theatre. “We decided to get back together because it’s probably the purest expression of joy that any of us have ever known in a show,” Kail attests, the unspoken subtext of course being that “Hamilton” empowered Miranda to do whatever he wanted (which only makes it all the more telling that he chose to do this). There’s little conflict, and even less sense of urgency as we sneak a peek at some of the performances and backstage banter, but any such drama might undercut the “for its own sake” FLS ethos.
Watching a movie that’s so at peace with its own infinitesimal stakes, we really only feel robbed of seeing anything below the surface in the rare instances when Fried acknowledges trouble in the water. A few quick moments are devoted to “Brittany Runs a Marathon” actor Utkarsh Ambudkar’s struggles with alcohol — and how they led him to throw away his shot at originating the “Hamilton” role of Aaron Burr — but Fried would rather celebrate his friend’s recovery than dwell on his struggles. We come away from the movie so awed by Ambudkar’s manic talent that everything else fades into the background.
More tantalizing is the brief aside about the falling out between Kail and Veneziale (prompted by, of all things, some unsolicited notes the latter had after an early performance of “Hamilton”), and it’s hard not to feel like Fried is caught between a rock and a hard place. He wants to tell this honestly, but it hurts too much to consider how that lasting frisson reflects on a friend group that has love in its name. Of course, the story doesn’t necessarily end here, even in spite of the “last dance” vibe that permeates throughout. As Miranda puts it: “Real life is not a linear narrative. It’s not an ascent. It’s all these side journeys — people move away and come back.”
And then he paraphrases the Orson Welles adage about how the difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you choose to end the story. The story of Freestyle Love Supreme probably has more chapters to go, either onstage and/or off, and Fried’s documentary leaves us with the secondhand hope of that coming to pass. Anything’s possible for a group of friends who’ve always helped each other to go with the flow.
“We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” will be available to stream on Hulu starting Friday, July 17.