The adage "fact is stranger than fiction" is muddied in Nuts, the new documentary from director Penny Lane (Our Nixon, The Voyagers) about a poor man becoming rich off a big idea and a few thousand goat testicles.
Lane strikes pay dirt with her subject, the surgeon John Romulus Brinkley, who built a medical empire in the 1930s by transplanting goat glands into the scrotum to cure male impotence. He leveraged his wealth to build a medical empire, with hospitals in multiple states. And to promote those hospitals, Brinkley operated two radio stations, first with KFKB (Kansas Folks Know Best), which spread country music and hours of daily adverts for his miracle medicines across most of the country, and second with XERA, a million-watt radio station. Built in Mexico to dodge Brinkley’s legal issues, XERA broadcasted to all of the USA, along with 16 other countries.
A reading of Brinkley’s Wikipedia page would make for a sufficiently engaging film, so ambitiously did the doctor live his life. Each venture served as its own game of cat and mouse for Brinkley and the US legal system, spotted with greed and guile.
Don't visit the Wikipedia page
But, I encourage you not to visit that Wikipedia page, and save yourself from learning another thing about Brinkley for the film. Not knowing too much about the man is a boon to watching Nuts, because Lane isn’t interested in biography, per se; with the beats of Brinkley’s 56 years on Earth, she creates a modern folk hero, a blend of fact and fiction who speaks to a greater truth.
What won’t spoil the film is my spewing praise for Lane’s craft. Documentary has become increasingly popular thanks to streaming video and audio podcasts, with true crime becoming a phenomenon unto its own. But in this moment, documentary at large feels both too precious and serious. Established "humor" documentarians like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock haven’t directed great films in over a decade, getting lost in politics and producer titles. When Werner Herzog is the funniest successful documentarian of the moment, it’s safe to say we have a problem. Lane is the answer to a question more people should be asking: who’s the great documentarian of this generation?
With both Our Nixon and Nuts, Lane investigates the past, but her tools of exploration and analysis are wholly modern. Her works are remixes of the truth and what we believe the truth to be; like getting news in real time from your Twitter stream. In Nuts, live interviews mingle with an overarching cartoon, giving it a larger than life feel. The dialogue and voice acting are as dry as a Mike Judge cartoon, and the animation, drawn by nine different artists, is varied and eclectic, like its own little animated short film collection built around one man’s grand adventure.
You can imagine the doc being broken into a dozen videos on a YouTube playlist, its individual parts stand so sturdy on their own. I suspect the film wouldn’t lose a thing in the process, except breaking the film into bite-sized bits would be frivolous. Once you start watching Nuts, you won’t want to stop. Like a great true crime story, it is impossible to look away from. Ironically, Nuts also ends with a big trial. But a verdict can’t put a bow on John Romulus Brinkley or his film, both of which are too big to be contained by the truth.