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'We  Are Freestyle Love Supreme' review: More self-congratulatory than illuminating

Hulu's documentary film "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme"

Hulu's documentary film "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme" directed by Thomas Kail premieres  July 17, 2020. Pictured: (L to R) Chris Sullivan, Christopher Jackson, Anthony Veneziale, Utkarsh Ambudkar, James Monroe Iglehart, Kurt Crowley (on keyboard back), and Arthur Lewis (on keyboard front). Credit: Joan Marcus

DOCUMENTARY "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Hulu

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme" tells the story of the hip-hop improv group created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale, charting its course from its founding in the early aughts through its revival in earnest in 2019 and Broadway engagement that culminated in January of this year.

The documentary, now streaming on Hulu, is directed by Andrew Fried ("Chef's Table") and includes footage spanning the troupe's appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005 through the present day.

MY SAY With Lin-Manuel Miranda having a moment right now thanks to Disney Plus, it'd be hard to imagine a better time for "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme," which serves as an origin story for the creative team behind the transformative one-two punch of "In the Heights" and "Hamilton."

The built-in audience for this movie, superfans who cannot get enough of Miranda and his universe, will hardly mind that the documentary is more self-congratulatory than illuminating.

But it would have been nice to get some outside perspective on the significance of the improv group and the ways it fed into "In the Heights" and, less directly, the "Hamilton" sensation, rather than relying entirely on the principals like Miranda and Kail (the latter won a Tony for directing "Hamilton" and earned a nomination for "In the Heights").

If you're going to posit that Freestyle Love Supreme stands at the vanguard of a fundamental transformation of American musical theater, you ought to be able to substantiate that thesis with more than self-hype. There's no disputing the genius of "In the Heights" and, especially, "Hamilton," but we don't need yet another reminder of it without something new to add to the conversation.

Obviously, the creators can speak more authoritatively about the Freestyle Love Supreme phenomenon on the ground floor than anyone, but there's only so much one can take of them waxing rhapsodic about the skills of everyone in the troupe, and what they add to the live performances, and how being in Freestyle Love Supreme allowed them to grow and develop and become the artists they are.

The aughts footage stands as a real highlight, especially scenes of the group beatboxing on the street in New York City and Edinburgh, with Miranda freestyling about the content of a grocery bag and more.

Interviews with younger versions of Miranda, Kail and others in the troupe such as the great actor Christopher Jackson, who would go on to star in the original cast of "In the Heights" and originate the role of George Washington in "Hamilton," poignantly capture the hope and optimism of individuals right on the verge of major creative discoveries. 

This reviewer has never attempted to freestyle rap, or perform improv at all for that matter, and so would not question a notion espoused by the comedian Stephen Merchant in a backstage visit to the Freestyle Love Supreme crew during the revival in 2019: improvising is hard enough without needing to make it rhyme.

A more interesting movie would have unpacked this further and showed us more of the creative process. There's more to it than just winging it, of course. 

But "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme" is less interested in showing us creative greatness than it is in telling us about it.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a disappointingly insubstantial documentary about a significant creative phenomenon that plays as a minor cog in the Lin-Manuel Miranda hype machine.

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