Dear Mr. Brody
2021, NR, 107 min. Directed by Keith Maitland.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., July 16, 2021
Letters. So many letters. Tens of thousands of them, written on spiral note paper, on nice paper stock, on construction paper. Precisely or erratically typewritten, set down in ballpoint, felt tip, lead pencil, in flowing cursive or blocky print.
Adorned with drawings, slogans, and cartoons. Photographs and other ephemera enclosed, faces smiling and stoic, young and old. The sheer volume of letters becomes overwhelming in both power and poignancy.
It’s easy to see why filmmaker Keith Maitland, following up his award-winning doc Tower, was drawn to those letters, to those stories, for his new documentary, Dear Mr. Brody. But the story of those letters begins with the story of Michael Brody Jr., scion of a family whose fortune stems from the oleomargarine industry. Firmly rooted in Sixties counterculture, the 21-year-old millionaire announced in January of 1970 that he was giving away $25 million to whoever wanted it. All they had to do was write to him with their requests, and he freely gave out his address and phone number.
His goal was world peace. If everyone was financially content, he reasoned, humanity could then move on to higher purposes, peace and love being chief among them. Naive, perhaps, but for almost two weeks, Brody and his newlywed wife, Renee, were hounded by crowds, the press, and hangers-on, and, briefly, Brody embraced it all. News interviews, a record deal with RCA, and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; it was a whirlwind, and Maitland, having no shortage of archival material or interviews, lays it all out with that freaky flower power vibe. Brody quickly becomes weary of it all, going from earnest to disillusioned, unable to bear the burden of his campaign. Drug use, notably a lot of PCP, and serious mental health issues eventually sent Brody to a mental ward, and he ended up taking his own life three years later, in 1973.
Contemporary interviews with Brody’s widow, his then-bodyguard, and assorted satellites around the story fill in the gaps. But it is Melissa Robyn Glassman, a film producer, who becomes the anchor of Dear Mr. Brody. While working for Hollywood heavyweight Edward R. Pressman, Glassman discovered a dozen boxes filled with letters to Michael Brody Jr. Pressman at one time had been attached to a film about Brody, and Glassman, rescuing the boxes from storage, became obsessed with them.
Through reenactments with actors, voiceover recitations, and, in a number of cases, tracking down the letter writers themselves, having them read and remember their lives of half a century ago. And those lives create a moving record of need spurned by grief and hope. Letters of hard times for families, of desperate fathers and idealistic children, of forlorn women and crackpots. It is nothing less than a tapestry detailing the human desire for, yes, money, but more importantly, for connection. That Maitland, Glassman, et al. have rescued these snapshots of history for us to experience feels like a fulfillment of Brody’s promise.
A version of this review ran as part of our South by Southwest coverage. Read our interview with Keith Maitland, “Dear Mr. Brody Documents an Eccentric, Forgotten American Story,” March 12.