Focusing as much on bystanders to a historical event as on its central character, documentarian Keith Maitland follows up his brilliant (and Emmy-winning) Tower with Dear Mr. Brody, another inventive look at a fifty year-old piece of American history: In January 1970, a 21 year-old “hippie millionaire” announced to the media that he intended to give his money away to anyone who’d ask for it. The total obscurity of this episode today lends an element of suspense to the doc, which sometimes prioritizes capturing a moment’s spirit over nailing down facts. But suffice it to say things didn’t go perfectly for either the philanthropist or his would-be beneficiaries — making Brody a portrait of a nation’s needy as much as of a deluded messiah.
(Though selected for both the Tribeca and Telluride fests, Brody has yet to make its premiere. Producers are currently shopping the film for distribution.)
We first encounter Michael Brody, Jr., confusingly, in the midst of his fame. He and his new wife Renee are on the Ed Sullivan show, where they’ll perform some pretty lame acoustic folk after Ed celebrates their pledge to give away $25 million.
Or is it more? A clip that soon follows has a journalist asking Brody about his fortune, which Brody at first claims is “unlimited” before sighing that, if a number has to be nailed down, you might as well call it $500 million. The escalating claims don’t stop there (soon one wonders if a very young Donald Trump is Brody’s bookkeeper), and the film isn’t in a hurry to clear up the confusion. For the moment, it’s content to reveal that a) Brody has a large inheritance from his grandfather’s margarine business, b) he’s drunk on the era’s peace-and-love ideals and c) whatever’s in his bank account, Brody’s public declarations cause an immediate stampede of citizens with their hands out.
Some of those involved in this story talk to Maitland in present-day interviews. (Annoyingly, we have to piece together who’s who, as onscreen identification cards would evidently be too square.) Renee recalls how she met Michael — ferrying hashish to his place as a favor to her drug-dealer boyfriend. The two connected immediately, and were engaged by the time the boyfriend showed up at the house the next day. Such were the Age of Aquarius certainties Brody embraced, and which fueled the increasingly grand promises he’d make during that bout of public philanthropy.
Maitland also talks to a few people who tried to turn Brody’s story into either feature films or nonfiction books. It’s surprising none of these stories got off the ground, though when the story is compared to similarly themed movies like Brewster’s Millions, reality’s messiness and darker elements do look fairly uncommercial.
One of those planned Brody movies was being produced by Ed Pressman. Decades later, Pressman employee Melissa Robyn Glassman was organizing a storage unit when she found twelve giant boxes full of letters written to Brody — all unopened.
Though it’s not completely clear until the final half hour, Glassman’s increasing feeling of moral obligation to these forgotten letter-writers is the movie’s real reason to exist. First, Maitland peppers his account with evocatively staged scenes in which actors depict letter-writers, whose messages offer everything from heartbreaking deprivation to utopian encouragement to commonplace frustrations that could be helped by a few hundred bucks.
Soon, though, Glassman is hunting down the real people who wrote the letters, meeting some in their homes and asking them to read what they may have forgotten they ever wrote. The swelling humanism of these sequences balances the sad later chapters of Brody’s tale, in which drugs, mental illness and a thirst for fame have predictable consequences. Seeking to transform a failed charitable undertaking into a collective portrait, Dear Mr. Brody offers a surprising statement on American hope, endurance and goodwill.
Production companies: Go-Valley, Twelve21, Hidden Candy
Director: Keith Maitland
Producers: Melissa Robyn Glassman, Megan Gilbride, Keith Maitland, Sarah Wilson
Directors of photography: Sarah Wilson, Keith Maitland
Editor: Austin Reedy
Composer: Osei Essed
Sales: John Sloss, Cinetic