Good documentaries tend to take on the characteristics of their subjects. Accordingly, Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme—an affectionate, wildly entertaining new documentary about freestyling and battle-rapping—boasts a loose, spontaneous, free-flowing feel that's perfectly suited to the sharp-witted improvisation and brash gamesmanship at its subject's heart. It's a movie dedicated to living in the moment, to the electric energy of working without a net, to pulling words, ideas, and concepts out of the ether. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that this engagingly light-footed valentine to an insular hip-hop subculture doesn't get too bogged down with clunky narration, exposition, or static shots of talking heads.
When Freestyle wants to provide a historical context for the emergence of freestyling as an art form, it uses artfully constructed archival footage that briskly links today's freestylers to the manic improvisation of jazz, the rhetorical genius of Muhammad Ali, the ecstatic performances of black preachers, and seminal proto-rap figures like The Last Poets. Freestyle contains some wonderful old footage of a young Biggie Smalls freestyling and Black Thought kicking it with only ?uestlove's beatboxing as support, but for the most part, it burrows deep into the hip-hop underground, which seems partly a practical matter: It's doubtless easier for spunky young documentarians to secure face time with someone like Boots from The Coup than with Jay-Z. But the tactic ends up working in the film's favor, especially with its strong emphasis on rappers who've become revered, buzzed-about battlers, but whose recording careers have never taken off. Some of the film's most electrifying moments document Supernatural, J.U.I.C.E., and Craig G in lyrical skirmishes that have taken on mythic dimensions in battling circles.
A giddy, well-earned sense of boosterism informs Freestyle, but so does a certain cynicism rooted in the widespread suspicion that a lot of freestylers are "faking the funk," trying to pass off clever written rhymes as improvisations. With a running time just over an hour, Freestyle doesn't have the time or space to offer an exhaustive or definitive history of freestyling, but it exuberantly captures its spirit, and like any good rapper, it's savvy enough to leave audiences hungry for more.