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+.