By James Hancock November 3rd, 2015
The double-edged sword of being a movie fanatic is that there are times where my massive consumption of film leaves comparatively little time to discover great music. Apart from using Shazam to identify music that I stumble upon in movies, I very rarely develop new taste in music that I was not already familiar with in some way in the past. So when I say that director Adam Bhala Lough’s Hot Sugar’s Cold World is one of the best documentaries about music I have ever seen, my joy is compounded by the fact that the subject of the film, Nick Koenig aka Hot Sugar, has become my favorite musician of the decade. I have no hesitation in mentioning Hot Sugar’s Cold World in the same breath as some of the best documentaries about musicians such as D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) and Charlotte Zwerin’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988). It is one of those rare movies where the moment it ends you will likely watch it again immediately in order to relish the experience all over again. If you’re unfamiliar with Hot Sugar as I was, Nick Koenig is a musician and producer hellbent upon using original sounds he finds anywhere outside his recording studio in order to give his music a sound and texture that no other producer can replicate. If he uses a drum beat in a composition, it is not a sound pulled from the same software every other producer is using. Chances are he stumbled upon a drummer at 2 am in the snow on the streets of Manhattan and recorded the sound then and there with taxi horns blaring in the background and drunks vomiting only ten feet away. Hot Sugar has been incredibly successful collaborating with high profile stars such The Roots but just as often his compositions become throwaway beats that he simply gives away for free on Soundcloud. While his circle of friends is heavily populated with successful musicians, comedians, and actors, the trappings of celebrity make him visibly uncomfortable and Koenig is clearly at his happiest when exploring the planet searching for interesting sounds. What emerges over the course of the film is a portrait of an artist who is consumed with his craft at the exclusion of all else resulting in a hauntingly beautiful film that can only be described as a love song to the creative process.
What I loved most about the movie was listening to Koenig speak at length about the history of the recording industry and how so much of our thinking about music is completely outdated. While he excels at playing the piano and guitar, he increasingly looks at traditional instruments as a fun novelty that have outlived their usefulness. From his point of view, ‘Most instruments were just vehicles to communicate a melody in the loudest way possible. All that changed with amplification and recorded sound.’ While virtuoso musicians might cry foul at their mastery of a single instrument being slighted by Koenig in such a way, Koenig proves his point many times over through his ability to function as a one-man recording studio creating an enormous body of work with only a handheld recording device, his laptop and a few keyboards. In one of the most moving scenes of the film we see Koenig taking up space inside a McDonald’s, lost inside a world of sound of his own creation, composing and improvising, blissfully unaware of the mundane environment around him. The film soars whenever we are given the chance to hear Koenig perform. Whether he is quietly playing a melody on his piano by himself, jamming ferociously (and hysterically) on the porn site LiveJasmin.com or keeping an underground nightclub enthralled with an awe-inspiring concert, his music has a profound impact on the listener. I plan on hunting down his work and listening to it extensively in the days to come.
Before bringing this review to a close, I have to dig into some of Hot Sugar’s relationships. On one hand he finds that his relationships with fellow professionals can be superficial, bordering on disposable and interchangeable. And he is brutally honest about the fact that his friends likely view him in the same light. But on the other hand, he is afforded the chance to hang out regularly with some fascinating creative individuals like director Jim Jarmusch and actor Martin Starr. At the start of the film we find Koenig romantically involved with the beautiful young hip hop artist Kitty Pryde, but the pressures of the music industry soon drive them apart. Clearly depressed from the breakup, Koenig retreats to Paris where his family has it roots in order to spend time in solitude working on his music. He records sounds inside Notre-Dame Cathedral before exploring the tunnels beneath the city talking to skeletons while recording the sounds their bones make when tapped together. He tells us, ‘Recording sounds is the closest I have to having control over anything in life. It’s always been reassuring that I can record something and then listen back to it. I’m literally playing with the universe and molding it to my liking. That’s why I do it. It’s a sense of ownership and control.’ Some viewers might find these scenes depressing but I found them to be incredibly inspiring. Which leads to my having a bit of a bone to pick with the expectations set up by the title of the movie. The film is called Hot Sugar’s Cold World and from a certain point of view, Nick Koenig may appear to live a cold, almost monastic way of life, but when the artistic results are so moving to his listeners, I have to argue that this film’s title is terribly misleading. But that is a small personal grievance on my part for an otherwise incredibly effective film. It would not surprise me in the least if this film were to develop a rabid cult following. Luckily for all of us, Hot Sugar’s Cold World is getting a wide online release this Friday and I strongly encourage everyone to take the time to see it.
Opening November 6 on Digital Platforms including: iTunes, Xbox, VUDU, Vimeo, Amazon, Playstation, Google Play and VHX
Special Theatrical Screenings Begin November 12th.
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