Documentary Review: Hot Sugar’s Cold World

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Hot Sugar's Cold World PosterThroughout my first semester audio engineering class, my professor asked us to keep a sound journal – sounds that we purposely sought out that we would usually ignore. By the end of the class I had analyzed the frequency at which my car motor purred, noticed the difference in pitch when you run fingers along skin with long nails versus short, and realized that the sound of everyone’s loud crunching has a different timbre (though all of them were annoying if done in class).

Hot Sugar does something similar – only he’s taken those sounds and turned them into music.

Nick Koenig (p/k/a Hot Sugar) carries with him a recording device at all times. If he hears a sound on the street, or comes across something he can make a sound from, he’ll never be at a loss to record it. Multiple times throughout the film we see him point the recorder at a sound source, quickly alter the file on his Mac, and seemingly moments later have a new beat or a melody for a new track.

He’s not the only person to use organic sounds as a basis for music – though admittedly, the examples I’m more familiar with are producers turning flatulence into bass beats or using the kinetic energy from twerking to create rhythm patterns (The internet can be a weird place). He is, to my knowledge, the only producer in this genre whose samplings have been used by Grammy-award winning artists . He produced The Root’s “Sleep” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkaV2lkLIeE) – and has recordings of inde film guru Jim Jarmusch playing drums off an iPhone synth.

This isn’t director Adam Bhala Lough’s first dance with music documentaries – over the years he’s profiled Lil’ Wayne, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Jim Jones, a track record that is reflected in Hot Sugar’s Cold World. Too often, documentaries – especially those with a music focus and definitely those made by fans -turn into worshipful fan-service rather than honest portrayals of their subjects. Though there are moments that dip into the dramatic, such as the film opening with calling Hot Sugar a “modern Mozart,” it also doesn’t hesitate to portray the tension that accompanies the playfulness in Koenig’s life.

In fact, the film subtly juxtaposes several facets of his life throughout the film – his rant on the uselessness of instruments in a modern world with a quiet, lovely scene of him recording the melody for a new song on a piano in a public space. A look at him surrounded by friends and fans at parties with the uncomfortable shot of him alone at a friend’s funeral. The confidence to thwart authority to sneak into the catacombs of France versus the admitting the loneliness of fair-weather friends in the New York music industry.

More than Mozart, Hot Sugar’s Cold World paints Koenig as a human in an industry that thrives on celebrity, a portrayal that makes his quirks much more forgivable.

Stylistically, the film relies heavily on the indie. Scored with Koenig’s tracks and split into chapters, breaks between topics are punctuated with 16-bit clip art and .gifs (several of which are definitely NSFW) – appropriate given the often MIDI-like textures Hot Sugar uses in his tracks. Throughout the film, insets of tumblr posts, twitter feeds, and text conversations highlight the amount of communication that occurs between fans and subjects online (often with more clarity than the conversations that occur face-to-face). And one inter-chapter interlude shows Koenig jamming on a livestream from what I can assume is a gay dating or adult site, given the side-bar images that were censored; no explanation is offered for the inclusion of this scene, which leaves the viewer puzzled in that confused puppy head-tilt sort of way.

There’s also an Easter egg for the technical watcher – the foley (environmental sound effects such as wind blowing or footsteps crunching on gravel) in the film has been turned up to 11, mimicking for the viewer how intensely Hot Sugar hears the world around him. It took me thirty minutes into the film to realize this, and this was listening on a good set of studio headphones, so kudos to the sound designer for the film for that addition.

Not everyone will warm to Hot Sugar’s Cold World; likely the casual music fan would be put off by the film’s oddities and its subject’s moments of abrasiveness. However, I suspect music fanatics will be fascinated by the process, and surprised by the relatability – every artist has their own perspective, and though they may choose a different medium, in Hot Sugar they will see the groundwork of each musician’s journey to add their voice to the world.

Hot Sugar’s Cold World is available for viewing. Look for it on Amazon

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