There’s a great moment in the documentary “ We Are Freestyle Love Supreme ” when Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail talk about how people are often disappointed when they see them exiting the theater. The onlookers are hoping to spot someone famous and Miranda and Kail did not, in 2007, fit the bill.
“There’s a good chance no one will ever know who you are,” Kail says to Miranda, dryly.
Cue the knowing chuckles: Everyone watching this documentary knows exactly who Miranda is. He’s even become a household name.
But this is before “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” and the Tonys and the big movies and the worldwide acclaim, when they were just a couple of enthusiastic theater kids prepping for a show. It’s a fun bit to see, knowing the wild successes that come next for these two. But the purity of the moment is at least a little spoiled by the fact that it is on camera.
Director Andrew Fried wasn’t, you imagine, just filming his friends and their improv group across several years sincerely thinking that they were going to end up in obscurity. It sort of gets to the heart of the “theater kid problem” where extreme earnestness crossed with laser-focused ambition can seem, to some, disingenuous and even annoying. Your tolerance for 90 minutes of that should probably help determine whether or not to watch “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme.”
For Miranda disciples, it’s essential. For everyone else? It is a good-natured peek at the origins of this freestyle hip-hop group, which ended up being a springboard for some pretty incredible talents, like Miranda, Kail, Christopher Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, Anthony Veneziale and Utkarsh Ambudkar.
Fried began filming this group of wide-eyed, beatboxing college grads in 2005, when they did a run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to mixed reception and again in 2007 when Kail and Miranda are about to debut “In the Heights.” The hook is that after some on and off years and then a big hiatus while “Hamilton” took off, the group reunites for a 2019 run of off-Broadway and Broadway performances. Or, as Kail puts it “one last ride.”
Although it might overestimate the audience’s knowledge of this particular improv group, it is somewhat extraordinary just how formative it was and how fond they still are of those early days. Kail says that their freestyle performances are the “purest expression of joy that any of us have ever felt.”
I’m not entirely sure that the joy and the exuberance of the live performance really translates in the documentary, though. You can admire their verbal dexterity and excitement over a well-crafted verse, but the energy stays on the screen. This is a film that also presumes a certain amount of knowledge or fandom of those in the group, and for the uninitiated’s sake, could have benefited from some external voices to give some perspective to what we’re watching. It also withholds (and essentially buries) some of the more dramatic elements until you’re deep into the it, like a rift in the group and one member’s struggle with alcoholism. Another version of this documentary might have used those to better effect.
“We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” also has the misfortune of coming out this week. While it might not be the best film for the moment, the silver lining of being on a streaming service is that it’ll be available later, too.
“We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,” a Hulu release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 90 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.