(2015) Musical Documentary (Amplify) Nick “Hot Sugar” Koenig, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jim Jarmusch, Rachel Trachtenburg, Shelby Fero, Martin Starr, Kool AD, Dapwell, Heems, Kathryn-Leigh “Kitty” Beckwith, William Edward Glen, Despot, Ariana, Himanshu Suri, Frank Andrews, Danny Brown. Directed by Adam Bhala Lough
Music isn’t just a collection of pretty notes played on instruments; in its most primal form it emanates from everything around us, from the noises of a drunk vomiting next to a cab door slamming to a pair of human skulls being smashed together in the Paris catacombs. In its most intellectually stimulating form, it challenges us to define it and redefine it – is music just a collection of sounds or is it something else?
Nick Koenig, a.k.a. Hot Sugar seems to think the latter. An electronic composer/musician/performer based in New York, most of his music has been released via the Internet. Thought by some to be a modern-day Mozart, he almost compulsively records sounds throughout his world (and any others he can find) and utilizes them to create beats and base music on. Some of the soundscapes he creates are incredibly beautiful; others are harsh and discordant; others are percussive and propulsive.
Like many artists, he doesn’t have a ton of humility; at one point he dismisses musical instruments like the piano and the guitar as “novelties” as if something that has been around more than a thousand years is just a passing phase. However, if you dig deep you can kind of see his point; musical instruments were essentially invented to be heard at a further range in a pre-amplification era; drums in fact have been used as devices of communication. Music going back to our most primitive past was essentially made via human sound – the voice and the beating of the chest and the clapping of hands.
Koenig is consumed by his muse; he can’t be bothered to devote a ton of attention to interpersonal relationships, although he has a girlfriend, rapper Kitty who like Hot Sugar, is more of an internet personality rather than a mainstream figure. When the two break up about 20 minutes in, the vitriol is incredibly toxic with Twitter and Instagram used as a delivery system for the poison.
Koenig responds by returning to his roots – visiting family in France including where his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, is buried. He goes on a world tour although he has reservations about it; one of his posts on the Internet can reach far more people than any club appearance. Apparently the necessity of face-to-face interaction with his fanbase eludes him.
Some of the better moments in the film come when Koenig is interacting with others – like astrophysicist and current face of scientific endeavor Tyson who discusses the science of sound with Koenig, as well as members of the hip hop group Das Racist and comedian/actor Starr (Silicon Valley), the latter who goes out with Koenig on a perhaps ill-conceived attempt to buy illegal fireworks to shoot off in a local gymnasium.
The documentary by respected filmmaker Lough captures Koenig in all his best and worst moments; from composing some really dazzling pieces to some thoughts that will bring the facepalms out in force. His single-mindedness and occasional bouts of Taking Himself to Seriously-itis can make him a difficult figure to relate to and one senses that it is perfectly okay with him. He’s not looking to be related to; he’s looking to challenge our concepts of what music is or should be, and to recreate it in his own image. It’s a brash and ultimately senseless undertaking, but one has to admire his guts to even try.
I can’t say I liked the documentary because ultimately I found Koenig to be the ultimate millennial; absolutely sure in his views that everything that preceded his existence was more or less wrong. It is a mindset in which the sum isn’t just greater than the parts but that the parts are irrelevant. I find that sort of thing to be a little bit disturbing but it is a brave new world and while being hip doesn’t interest me, being able to navigate the changes that come does. Hot Sugar may indeed be making the noise of the future that will replace music as we know it. That doesn’t mean I will embrace the change that he may very well have the talent to make.
The movie is currently set for a very limited release mainly in one-off screenings but as of November 6 the film will be available in on-demand or downloadable form; go to the website to see where you can find the film by clicking on the photo at the top of this review.
REASONS TO GO: The music can be incredible. Some fascinating images. Interesting look at the creative process.
REASONS TO STAY: Koenig comes off as a bit self-important. The breakup of his relationship takes up too much time. Hot Sugar is not necessarily a film subject that people will go out of their way to look for.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, sexual images and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Koenig lives in New York City now, he was raised in Paris and speaks fluent French.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exit Through the Gift Shop
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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