By Elias Savada.
“Anything can be turned into anything.”
So says scruffy, droopy-eyed musician/music producer Nick Koenig, the eponymous subject of writer-producer-director Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary Hot Sugar’s Cold World. Grammy-nominated Koenig, a.k.a. Hot Sugar, and composing as Nick Koenig-Dzialowski likes to think outside the box, pushing his digital recording devices into the faces of many on behalf of his art of associative music, using gathered sounds as non-traditional musical notes.
Lough fashions his somewhat experimental mishmash as a fly-on-the-wall piece (mostly in the artist’s New York apartment/work space), but also takes the artist out and about as he collects massive bits and bytes of audio material in his digital library for musical experimentation. Chew on Pop Rocks. Blow out a candle. Kick a bag of garbage. Indulge a $90,000 Steinway. Stand near heavy machinery. Walk the noisy streets. Leave no stone unturned (and he’s probably recorded that, too).
It is an interesting and infinite array of weird-and-strange stuff that flits by. A highly flammable doll house. “I’m literary playing with the universe and holding it to my liking,” Koenig intones about his meanderings. But all the tea in China doesn’t necessarily make a rousing film. Much of the film looks like it was shot on a depressingly bad color film stock from the 1960s; most of the image has a over-bright, washed-out pink tone. This is not your (grand)father’s glorious Technicolor dream.
HSCW also follows Kitty, f.k.a. Kitty Pryde, the musician’s rapper girlfriend (before exiting their toxic relationship 20 minutes into the 86-minute film), who apparently has her own followers on the web. I’m not sure about her being an “internet sensation,” unless the filmmaker is talking about the cute little kitten videos instead of the boring 2012 music video “Okay Cupid,” which has, indeed, garnered over 1.5 million views on YouTube (although one-third of its ratings are dislikes). Thankfully the video is not part of the documentary. At times, the couple’s newly found disaffection for each other parades across the screen as Tweets, and their photos become an okay-enough-already slide show. Later, a new muse, the red-headed comedian Shelby Fero, picks up the seemingly romantic slack.
Lough and co-writer Hunter Stephenson (also a producer) break the feature into half a dozen chapters, generally for chronological reasons. They garnered support from executive producers David Gordon Green (this year’s Our Brand Is Crisis), Jody Hill, and Danny McBride, all part of the group behind HBO’s Eastbound & Down (2009-2013).
For instance, Chapter 3: Goin’ Hamlet in Paris captures a somber Koenig making his first visit to the French capital in 2013, a solo venture which meditates on family’s decimation during the Holocaust. Still recording, of course, he hits the skull-drenched underground catacombs (where he sets off an alarm with his bone bonking), or claps inside Notre Dame. He visits his deceased ancestors, buried in a Parisian cemetery, for inspiration.
Some cameos are larger than others. Jim Jarmusch “appears” in the film, but if you blink you’ll miss him. There’s hang time with burnt-out American rapper Heems, part of the alternative hip hop group Das Racist, not that there’s much to the encounter other than watching (and recording) Heems’ mother cooking a meal. There’s a short meeting between Nick and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who easily debunks the artist’s belief that “The Universe is full of sound.”
The movie devolves with the inclusion of staged scenes, including one that begins on a lunch date with his friend, actor Martin Starr (Silicon Valley, 2014- ), discussing buying illegal firecrackers, then moves to an evening rendezvous for the purchase from a creepy guy played by Pat Healy, whose face is vaseline smudged out for what, dramatic effect? And jeez, just what someone wants while selling illegal fireworks is a camera recording him. Of course, Healy doesn’t seem to notice that. Must be an invisible cameraman. This adds little to the tone of the film, until Nick starts to record the pyrotechnics’ explosions.
There’s the bizarre Chapter 5: Funeral Bill. This segment covers the artist’s heavily and brightly tattooed friend Bill Glen, a reclusive musician and WWII vet who has supposedly died in 2013 or 2014. (Nick thought he had died a year earlier. Does that really make him a friend?) It feels like another staged event, because the social media tweets look a tad suspicious. When he’s the only person at Bill’s funeral, it gets weirder. He records the silence, which he calls “terrifying” or “too intense” to listen to or make into a musical composition. Silence is his old friend.
This might have made an enjoyable short, but the musings of this musician wear repetitively thin at feature length. Nick castigates mankind for its shallow fixation on a visual perspective, while relegating audio markers to secondary status. Considering that civilization’s ability to record sound is fairly new, while caveman drawings date back 40,000 years, there’s no way we’ll catch up with sound libraries, let alone profess to an ability to recreate many real sounds from as recently as the 19th century.
No doubt some out there like the electronic beat that Lough captures. Watching him work has some fascinating moments. His performances are uniquely intense instrumental sessions. Yet, Koenig’s music is an acquired taste.
And he does more than appear as the central character. He did some additional photography, was the film’s art director, worked with others on the sound design, and shared sound recording credit with the director. I was fascinated by the lengthy credit scrawl belonging to the “partial” list of sounds used in the making of songs in the movie. Who would have thought that Ants crawling over a pile of cocaine finally get their due!
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.