J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

SFIFF ’16: NUTS

They won’t tell you this at the Grand Ole Opry, but the commercial development of Country music was greatly supported by goat . . . glands. “Dr.” J.R. Brinkley was the man who recognized the untapped potential of both. Penny Lane (yes, that is her given name) chronicles the up-and-down life of Brinkley, the pioneering broadcaster and purported infertility specialist in the subtly titled NUTS (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Brinkley’s rise from mean circumstances was so unlikely, even Horatio Alger wouldn’t believe it—perhaps with good reason. As the narrated passages of his authorized biography explain, the young hayseed was laughed out of medical schools because he was so scruffy. Yet, the diploma-ed-up Brinkley would eventually set up practice in Milford, Kansas, where destiny was waiting for him. When a patient suffering from “dysfunction” requested a little of vim and vigor from the Billy-goat they could hear going about his business outside, Brinkley obliged, because why not? When the man’s wife soon found herself in a family way, frustrated men from around the country soon flocked to Milford for Brinkley’s gland transplant surgery (it was really just a slice he was inserting, mind you).

Obviously, the man who developed goat transplant surgery was no dummy, but Brinkley also recognized the powerful possibilities of radio at a presciently early stage. He founded the nation’s fourth radio station right there in Milford, making it a home for all the “hillbilly” music proper stations would never play, as well as an advertising venue for his assorted treatments and cures. Eventually, the FCC shut him down, at much the same time the AMA revoked his license. Yet, a man like Brinkley would not be deterred from such setbacks. He simply went down to Mexico and founded XERA, the original “Border Blaster” that would become the storied home of artists like the Carter Family and opened a new clinic a stone’s throw away in Texas.

So did the gland transplants actually work? Hell no, they didn’t, but Lane will initially have viewers wondering. NUTS is in fact a deliciously subversive film that sets up the Brinkley legend and then knocks it down, using his own words (or those of his hand-selected biographer) each time. Arguably, NUTS is also a rather timely film, in an almost tragically bizarre way. Running as a populist candidate that combined the worst of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Brinkley ran a nearly successful write-in campaign for Kanas governor based on demagogic class warfare themes.

Using sly animation and ironically cornpone narration, Lane treats Brinkley’s story with the gentle mockery it cries out for. It is rather fitting that Brinkley incubated country music, because his aptitude for self-reinvention is pure Americana. Yet, Lane also captures the Shakespearean dimensions of his inevitable fall. It would be impossible to make Brinkley dull, but her stylistic choices kick it up several notches further. Very highly recommended, NUTS screens this Friday (4/29) and Saturday (4/30), as part of this year’s SFIFF.

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