In the first frames of the documentary, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, you glimpse a group of charming young men at a New York bus stop in 2005; they're beat-boxing and rapping to amuse a little girl. They shout across the street to a friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda. As he dodges cars to dash across the street, you realize: A key figure in show business history almost got run over.
Shot over the course of 15 years, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme is a behind-the-scenes story of the hip-hop group that sharpened many of the talents that would go on to create In The Heights and Hamilton, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, actor Christopher Jackson, theater director Thomas Kail, improv performer Anthony Veneziale and more.
"They were creating a language onstage," says director Andrew Fried, "and it's a language now that I think has become very familiar to us because In The Heights exists and because Hamilton is as ubiquitous as it is."
NPR's Scott Simon spoke with Christopher Jackson, Anthony Veneziale and Andrew Fried about We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, which is now streaming on Hulu. They talk about what inspired Fried to start following the group around with a camera all those years ago, the trust needed to support taking creative risks and the quandary of using hip-hop, a genre rooted in giving a voice to the disenfranchised, as a mode of artist expression once you've become successful. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In the first frames of the documentary "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme," you glimpse a group of charming young men at a New York bus stop in 2005 who sing hip-hop to amuse a little girl.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE ARE FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) Tiny little purple coat. Meredith checking what we wrote but not really. We're singing it on the spot. Oh, no, she got afraid. It's OK...
SIMON: They shout across the street to a friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda. And as he dodges cars to dash across the street, you realize show-biz history almost got run over. "We Are Freestyle Love Supreme" is a behind-the-scenes story shot over 15 years of the hip-hop group that steeped and sharpened many of the talents that would go on to create "In The Heights" and "Hamilton" - including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson, Thomas Kail, Anthony Veneziale and more. We are joined now - as we are these days - from separate locations all over the world by Christopher Jackson, Anthony Veneziale and Andrew Fried, who is the director of the documentary, now on Hulu. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.
CHRISOPHER JACKSON: Thank you for having us.
SIMON: Andrew Fried, what made you see possibilities and start following the group 15 years ago? Or did you see possibilities? Did it just work out fortuitously for you?
ANDREW FRIED: I went to the show knowing very little about it. I left the show about an hour and 20 minutes later being completely blown away by what I had seen. They were creating a language on stage. And it's a language now that I think has become far more familiar to us because "In The Heights" exists and because "Hamilton" is as ubiquitous as it is. But hearing pop culture and comedy through long-form improv, happening all with mixed musical genres and all happening in this, you know, heightened, energized environment really just blew me away. And so long story short is three weeks later, I was sleeping on their couch in Edinburgh while they were performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. You know, I certainly didn't imagine that what I was starting was a 15-year-documentary project, but I was.
SIMON: Christopher Jackson, I note we're both from Illinois.
SIMON: And "Freestyle Love Supreme" reminds me a little bit of hip-hop meets Second City, you know, drawing the names out of a hat - try this, try that - audience suggestions. How do you explain what the group does in performance?
JACKSON: I think what would be more aptly used to describe our group is more of like a jazz group. We all come in playing different instruments with different skill sets and different sensibilities and different senses of humor. And we wait for our solos. And we've gotten very, very good at listening to one another and responding to one another. I don't think that this group exists without a tremendous amount of trust.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE ARE FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Yeah. Right now I am home alone. I'm doing my own thing with my Ramona. Yeah.
SIMON: Anthony Veneziale, the key is listening. You really appreciate that by watching you all work together.
ANTHONY VENEZIALE: When you get this group of people who are very different from one another but yet have this implicit trust in one another that, you're going to have my back, then I think you're willing to take bigger risks. And I think that's evident in all of the work that all of us have done since then. And that might even be the thing that Andrew was really interested in, too. He saw us taking these big risks.
FRIED: It really - to be honest, it was that and it was a feeling of just, like, jealousy. I remember sitting in the audience jealous of the skill that you guys had, jealous of the fun that you were having while you were doing it and just sitting there knowing, like, wow I could never do that. And I think that jealousy gave route to curiosity, and that curiosity, you know, begat connection.
SIMON: And Chris Jackson, let me ask you - taking off on something Thomas Kail says in this film - the energy, the creativity, the spirit, the willingness to be wrong - is that something you've been able to pour into all of your other activities, too, that began - something you began to learn with each other?
JACKSON: Well, you know, considering that the last, you know, show that I did was somewhat successful.
SIMON: You mean - what's it called again? I'm trying to remember.
JACKSON: No, you know, when I stand opposite Lin Miranda, and we're embodying the roles of Washington and Hamilton, and there's a camaraderie, and there is a trust and a closeness there, that happens because of "Freestyle Love Supreme." You know, I have done a significant run in one Broadway show. I had quickly sort of learned - or thought I learned - what wasn't possible on a Broadway stage. And before any of those calluses really took shape, I was reintroduced to what I got into the business for anyway, which is to have great relationships and to feel like every day, I got to be creative in some form or fashion. When I look back on it, you know, it's such a great little time capsule for what my entire adult creative life has been.
SIMON: Let me leave you with a question that Thomas Kail asks, actually, early in the film. Can you do rap? Can you do hip-hop at 40?
JACKSON: Yeah. Words are still words, right? Music's still music. It's a form, right?
SIMON: Yeah. No, I agree. And, hell, the Rolling Stones are in their 70s.
FRIED: Well, that's it, right? Like, can you be doing rock 'n' roll in your 70s? Well, it took rock 'n' rollers to age to 70 to find out the answer to that question. Hip-hop is still a fairly new musical genre in the grand scheme of things. And so there is a community of people who have been doing it since its origin who are now aging into their 40s and 50s and beyond. And I think we're seeing that it's beyond possible. It's a way that it thrives. And I think, like a fine wine, it ages well in some ways as well.
VENEZIALE: Scott, I think there's another part of that equation as well, which is, like, generally, hip-hop is seen as the voice of disenfranchisement. I think that's where it started. You know, if you look at the Bronx, if you look at DJ Kool Herc, if you look at Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it's a Black art form and was a way to address or at least talk about these things that were happening in their community that they had no other way to talk about. Once you become sort of a part of the establishment, there's a question of, well, are you able to still question the establishment? Are you still disenfranchised if you are successful? And as we're seeing here with all of these different movements that are happening right now - these revolutions that we're going through, the Black Lives Matter protests - are you feeling disenfranchised? That's the question that I think hip-hop quite often gets at. And that's something, I think, when you have a diverse group of people on stage, you are hopefully engaging in a meaningful conversation about it.
SIMON: Christopher Jackson, Anthony Veneziale, two of the subjects and stars - and Andrew Fried, the director - of the documentary "Freestyle Love Supreme," now on Hulu. Thank you so much for being with us.
FRIED: Thank you.
JACKSON: Thank you, Scott.
VENEZIALE: Thanks, Scott. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "A LOVE SUPREME, PT. 1: ACKNOWLEDGEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.