In the interest of full disclosure, I made a small contribution to the Kickstarter campaign of “Nuts!” based solely on the strength of Penny Lane’s first feature “Our Nixon” and the promise of her second, the story of John Romulus Brinkley, a self-made multi-millionaire who built his fortune on having one of the strongest radio signals imaginable during the Depression era, which he was able to acquire after pioneering the use of goat testicles as a cure for male impotency. (Now tell me you wouldn’t plunk down a few bucks for that pitch?)
To say that Lane delivered would be an understatement since even the meticulous work she did to find something new to say about Nixon Administration in her previous film couldn’t possibly prepare audiences for “Nuts!,” which not only put a big goofy smile on my face for the entirety of its running time but transcends its laughs with a startlingly prescient look at American culture. While “Our Nixon” demystified a president, “Nuts” unexpectedly tells the story of a man whose greatest skill was capitalizing on Americans’ desire to believe and be entertained, even in the most serious of circumstances, which seems to have particular relevance as we contemplate the specter of Donald Trump running for the nation’s highest office.
In fact, to go by “Nuts!,” Brinkley was one of the first, if not the first, to bring the loudspeaker in political campaigning, once arming a van with a few on top and an organ inside to criss-cross Kansas in a bid to become the state’s governor (which he would’ve been if the powers that be hadn’t disqualified thousands of votes for him). But Brinkley realized he didn’t need to be involved in the government to have influence, his powers of persuasion first born from his time in medicine when his goat testicle procedure captured the imagination of infertile men everywhere and subsequently moved into radio to spread the gospel of his medical expertise. That soon led to his own radio station KFKB, which grew a large listener base with its combination of bluegrass and frank talk about sex as well as enough power wattage to carry it from coast to coast, yet as his fans grew, so did his enemies who questioned his authority and took umbrage at his lack of decorum.
Brinkley’s iconoclasm seeps into the very fabric of “Nuts!” and at first, you might be taken aback by how quickly the film takes you into its confidence, incredibly eager to please by design with rapid-fire dialogue accompanied by the narration of a syrupy-voiced stranger of the kind you’d likely want telling your own story in addition to fun animation that’s grows more and more sophisticated as the film goes on. It’s nothing if not dazzling, as if a bunch of the eclectic artists at the Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered got their hands on the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign, but while constructed as a mosaic, Lane’s mastery over all of “Nuts!” reveals itself gradually as the suspicion creeps in that some pieces might be missing.
While it would be sacrilege to give away anything from the last act, a trial that tests Brinkley’s populism, it can be said that Lane finds a way to put the audience on the stand that only adds to the enjoyment of the film rather than feel as if it’s some sort of condescension, provoking one to reinterpret everything that’s come before and their complicity in it. Excellent work from the Brooklyn-based animation company Cartuna and composer Brian McOmber hide something in their bombast and out of that, Lane constructs a remarkably insightful critique of capitalist society while sticking exclusively to Brinkley’s story.
Still, above all else, “Nuts!” is simply a good time, rollicking as it revels in one Brinkley exploit after another. For Lane, who spent eight years on the project, it’s a huge leap forward from her first film, which she made during a lull in “Nuts!” production, but it should also be seen as a huge leap for the documentary world as a whole, remixing elements that are common practice such as talking heads, exhaustively researched visual recreations and formal chicanery such as chapter stops to create something wholly original and innovative. History never seems to feel as alive as it does in the hands of Lane and it took some serious balls to make a film like “Nuts!”
“Nuts!” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Sundance Film Festival two more times on January 28th at 9 am at the Library Center Theatre and January 30th at 3 pm at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre.