A millionaire stirs a movement by addressing the miseries and aspirations of the common people with impossible promises.
Had the title subject of Keith Maitland’s capricious and tragic documentary “Dear Mr. Brody” (2021) intentionally exploited this ocean of need, resentment, and hope — like some politicians today — he might have become a prototypical populist demagogue. But this was back at a time when the hippie ethos had not yet fully degenerated and some still dreamed of transforming the world through love. So, instead, a combination of naivete, narcissism, and PCP, as well as genuine idealism, motivated Brody’s quixotic ambitions.
In January 1970 Michael Brody Jr., the “21-year-old heir to an oleomargarine fortune” as he was often referred to by the media, flew back with his new bride, Renee (they married soon after they met when she delivered hashish to his Scarsdale home), from their Jamaica honeymoon in a leased Pan Am 707 to New York. There he announced to the press that he would give away $25 million to anyone in need who asked for help.
The story blew up into a media sensation. The network news covered it (one interviewee claims that Brody and his entourage got the newscaster Walter Cronkite stoned). The celebrity millionaire and his dazed-looking wife did the talk show circuit and appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where Brody sang Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” He cut a record deal with RCA and was mobbed by fans wherever he went.
And the letters poured in.
But Brody was in over his head. The response overwhelmed him, and in interviews with the press he alternately touted his project, insisting he was sharing love and happiness and not just money, and denounced those begging for bucks. He would seek attention and then complain about it, demanding that people leave him alone. Meanwhile, he grew more megalomaniacal in his pronouncements, claiming that he had a fortune of $500 million, then $1 billion, then $10 billion; that he had arranged a deal to end the Vietnam War; and other delusions of peace, love, happiness, and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
Then the checks started to bounce. Brody ended up in a psychiatric hospital. The bonkers scheme, the media sensation, and the dreams of thousands all went bust in a week.
Thousands of the letters to Brody ended up in boxes in a storage unit belonging to Edward Pressman, the producer of such independent films as Brian De Palma’s “Sisters” (1972) and Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973), as well as an executive producer of this film. Pressman wanted to make a film about Brody but abandoned the project in the late 1970s. Years later, he had his assistant Melissa Robyn Glassman (one of this film’s producers) sort through the letters in an attempt to revive the project — and she discovered that they were all unsealed.
The letters provide Maitland with the other half of the story. Glassman opens and reads them, and in some cases Maitland reenacts in faded period-style footage the often heartbreaking circumstances of the ingenuously hopeful people writing them.
Though not as inventive or focused as “Tower” (2016), Maitland’s animated re-creation of the 1966 mass murder of 16 people by a sniper at the University of Texas, “Dear Mr. Brody” does demonstrate stylistic verve, engaging in an occasional flurry of psychedelic flourishes in the style of “Yellow Submarine” (1968). And it touches on many still timely issues — the limits of compassion, the drive for celebrity, the longing for a messiah figure, and the individual’s helplessness before the overwhelming misery of the world.
Perhaps Maitland’s boldest move — possibly verging on the exploitative — was to track down some of those people who wrote to Brody and have them read their letters in the film. Some break down recalling the desperate times they were in when they sent their appeals, but almost all have rebounded and made a life for themselves without the false promises of a would-be billionaire.
“Dear Mr. Brody” will stream on discovery+ beginning April 28.
Go to www.discoveryplus.com.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.