The ‘hippie millionaire’ who (briefly) took the country by storm

This poster depicts Michael Brody Jr. and his wife, Renee, as they appeared in 1970.

By Richard Ades

Dear Mr. Brody documents the story of a wealthy young man who captured the country’s attention in 1970 by promising to give away cash to all who needed it.

Michael Brody Jr. was the little-known heir to a margarine dynasty when he suddenly appeared on the national scene with his young bride, Renee, in tow. With his guitar, long hair and talk of peace and love, he made an immediate impression as the “hippie millionaire.” He even landed a recording contract and was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show.

More importantly, he inspired thousands of people to queue up outside his Scarsdale home and Manhattan office in search of the promised handouts. Thousands of others simply wrote to him of their needs, which were often dire.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the phenomenon ended due to Brody’s increasingly bizarre behavior and apparent inability to follow through on his promises. The new documentary, written and directed by Keith Maitland, tries to figure out just what happened and what it all means.

It is not a happy story, for multiple reasons.

Due to tragic circumstances mentioned late in the film, Michael Brody himself does not appear except in vintage footage. But the present-day version of Renee does appear, coming across as someone who’s no more together than the lonely 20-year-old who agreed to marry Michael just one day after they met.

Also appearing is Michael and Renee’s grownup son, Michael James Brody III, who seems equally lost. Grossly obese, he lives his life surrounded by memorabilia from his dad’s 15 minutes of fame, including box after box of letters from folks begging the “hippie millionaire” for help.

Those folks, by the way, become as central to the story as the Brody family itself. In fact, it was producer Melissa Robyn Glassman’s discovery of a stash of their unopened letters that led to the film’s being made in the first place.

Many of those letters tell tales of desperation caused by lost jobs, health problems and growing debts. Others mention related problems such as domestic abuse, while still others are from individuals who are simply lonely and want someone to talk to.

Maitland and Glassman bring several of their stories up to date by tracking down the writers and asking them to comment on what they wrote all those decades ago. In one case, a woman is surprised to learn that at the same time she wrote to Brody, her mother also was asking him for help.

Dear Mr. Brody, then, is a devastatingly sad tale with no real villains but with countless victims. Brody himself was the first one, being a well-meaning idealist whose efforts were undermined by his own demons. Renee was another, being led by loneliness into a fraught relationship that still seems to haunt her.

And then there were the thousands of desperate people who begged Brody for help. The fact that they were forced to seek salvation from a complete stranger says much about the society they lived in—which, of course, we still live in today.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Dear Mr. Brody is available from sources such as Apple iTunes, Google Play and Vudu and can be seen beginning April 28 on Discovery+.

Live, from Columbus! It’s the Beatles!

Andy Ankrom takes the helm in Yellow Submarine, one of 33 Beatles tunes featured in Bigger Than Jesus (photo by Will Shively)
Andy Ankrom takes the helm in Yellow Submarine, one of 33 Beatles tunes featured in Bigger Than Jesus (photo by Will Shively)

By Richard Ades

Even if you’ve always idolized the Beatles, chances are you’ll learn something new from Bigger Than Jesus. Shadowbox Live’s “live rockumentary” intersperses songs from the Fab Four’s incredible canon with tidbits of information about the group.

For instance, did you know that in 1964 the Liverpudlian quartet refused to play the Gator Bowl until the Florida facility set aside its segregated ways? Or that Blackbird (whose title was mod slang for “black girl”) was a response to the civil rights movement?

And did you know that Eric Clapton had an uncredited guitar solo in While My Guitar Gently Weeps?

Well, maybe you knew that, but you won’t mind if the show’s narrators occasionally tell you stuff you’ve already heard. You’ll be too busy enjoying the music that makes up the bulk of its running time. Performed in roughly chronological order, the songs are some of the band’s biggest and best hits.

Given John, Paul, George and Ringo’s well-known expertise as musicians and recording innovators, a Beatles retrospective is a dangerous undertaking. Viewers won’t be satisfied unless the song renditions approximate the fun and excitement of the originals. For the vast majority of the show, Shadowbox succeeds.

After a few early numbers that are merely pleasant, things begin to heat up with Kevin Sweeney’s electrifying delivery of Help! JT Walker III then slows things down with the first of several numbers to benefit from his golden touch, the gorgeous Norwegian Wood.

Afterward, director Stev Guyer explains the John Lennon quote that gave the show its name. According to documentary footage projected on the room’s video screen, Lennon’s sardonic comment that the Beatles would surpass Jesus in popularity led to a boycott in at least one Southern city. The KKK also jumped on the anti-Beatles bandwagon, we learn.

Guyer begins the evening by jokingly apologizing to viewers whose favorite songs were inevitably left out. There were simply too many great ones to choose from, he says.

Indeed, it’s not hard to think of classics that didn’t make the cut: Yesterday, for one. Or She Loves You, the joyous anthem that helped to define the mopheads during their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

But there are so many other gems that are included. Some of the most memorable (and their featured vocalists): Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Leah Haviland), Magical Mystery Tour (Amy Lay and Walker), Penny Lane (Will Macke), Helter Skelter (Stephanie Shull), While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Jeff Simpson) and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Sweeney).

Many numbers are marked by fine harmonizing on the part of backup singers. In others, the Matthew Hahn-led band plays a leading role, as when surreal instrumental crescendos interrupt in A Day in the Life.

The psychedelic and colorful costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Helenberger) help to recapture an era and a band that were increasingly influenced by mind-altering drugs. Katy Psenicka’s choreography is another important element of the proceedings. It’s especially enjoyable when the vocalists themselves bust a few moves, as they do in When I’m Sixty-Four (sung by Tom Cardinal, Haviland and Macke).

If you’re old enough to remember the Beatles, Bigger Than Jesus is nostalgic fun. If you’re not, it’s one hell of a history lesson.

Bigger Than Jesus: A Live Rockumentary About the Band That Changed the World continues through Aug. 7 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays, 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.