Earlier this year when I caught Hot Sugar’s Cold World at SXSW, the kids I was sitting next to leaned over and asked if I was a fan of the indie producer. “I actually don’t know much about him, I just had a gap in my schedule,” I told them. “OH MY GOD! He’s a genius! I wish I could hear him for the first time all over again!” was their response. At the time, I took that as a red flag, assuming that the documentary would be a vanity project that overhyped the young wunderkind; after all, the SXSW guide described Hot Sugar (aka Nick Koenig) as a “modern day Mozart,” with supporters ranging from his collaborators in Das Racist to fellow indie darling Martin Starr, as well as producers David Gordon Green and Danny McBride. Fortunately, Hot Sugar’s Cold World is more moving than a fan project, it’s the rare music doc that effectively communicates the language and process of creation as much as it showcases the artist it focuses on.
An instrumentalist and producer who creates lush, complex music utilizing creative samples of every day sounds, like street noise and pop rocks and even room silence, as Hot Sugar, Koenig cultivates a quirky online presence and following. Looking like something from a VICE photospread, Koenig is initially off-putting, particularly whenever he waxes poetic about his creative process and talks shit about traditional instruments and recording. You get the sense that Koenig views himself as a genius figure who is too good for us mere mortals, right up until the point where his relationship with Kitty Pryde falls apart, at least.
After this development, Koenig becomes more vulnerable and open and the film transforms from a somewhat gimmicky accounting of two internet sensations to an intriguing glimpse behind the curtain of creativity and sound addiction. Koenig’s earlier statements about the evolution of music themselves evolve into philosophical treatises on the role sound plays in everyday life and Koenig’s quest to control the chaos of life by harnessing the everyday sounds we ignore. What previously seemed like stoner goofball talk about noise in space and human egotism over the worth of some sounds over others becomes clearer and Koenig takes on a kind of guide role. At this point, Hot Sugar’s Cold World delivers on the second half of its title, shifting the focus to Koenig’s view on our place in a world of sound and not merely Koenig himself.
There is also a surprising amount of drama to the film, with Koenig’s almost inhuman focus on his art occasionally melting away to show his equally passionate interest in helping those he cares about. One of the film’s most moving scenes details Koenig’s relationship with a disarmingly hip old man, a musician of sorts himself, whose body is covered in tattoos. Your inner cynic might initially make you suspect Koenig is just talking about this man because he is another oddball operating on the fringes of art and society, but the more Koenig talks about their relationship, the more obvious it becomes that they have had a profound effect on each other’s lives. It’s not the first time Koenig lets you glimpse his empathy and vulnerability, but it stands out as an especially effective sequence showing how the little moments Koenig works into his music often result in huge emotional moments for him personally.
By the time the film wraps up, Koenig is a lot more relatable and regardless of where you stand on his music, Hot Sugar’s Cold World is a fascinating peek inside the creative process and the larger meaning of art. Usually music films struggle to convey the spontaneity of the creative process in an artful manner, but Hot Sugar’s Cold World presents the process in a realistic and entertaining fashion. That’s quite an accomplishment and regardless of the eventual course of Hot Sugar’s career, Hot Sugar’s Cold World is a film that has the potential to develop a strong cult following.
Hot Sugar’s Cold World is available on VOD starting tomorrow, November 6th, and will also have select screenings, check the film’s site for details. Portions of this review originally ran as part of Loser City’s SXSW coverage.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.