Release Date(s)2021 (March 7, 2023)
Studio(s)Discovery+ (Greenwich Entertainment/Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
Dear Mr. Brody (2021) is more proof, as if more proof was needed, that we’re in the midst of a Golden Age of indie documentaries. The film is an original, at times moving, cultural anthropological exploration of an obscure but fascinating story that, briefly, was an international media sensation. It tells that story well, but also casts a wider net exploring both the state of American life in 1970 and its aftereffects a half-century later.
Michael James Brody, Jr. was a 21-year-old hippie, lonely heir to the Jelke oleomargarine fortune. In 1970 he announced his intention to give away all his money to anyone in need. Overnight, Brody was besieged with requests by mail (letters in the tens of thousands, from all over the world) with mobs of hopefuls also flooding his New York home and office.
Brody became an instant celebrity, the aspiring musician winning a recording contract and appearing with his wife on The Ed Sullivan Show. The overwhelming response, however, combined with Brody’s sleep-deprivation, fragile mental state and drug use—including PCP—doomed Brody’s original and apparently sincere enterprise, and in little more than a week the whole thing came crashing down in ways as bizarre as they were tragic.
The premise of the film is rooted in the discovery of thousands of unopened letters addressed to Brody but held in the archives of film producer Edward Pressman (Sisters, Badlands, Phantom of the Paradise), one of several filmmakers that unsuccessfully developed films about the Brody phenomenon. In Dear Mr. Brody, many of these 50-year-old letters are opened and read, sometimes by researchers, sometimes by actors in recreations, and in some cases the original letter-writers (or their children) are contacted. In the film’s best moments, in reading letters written so long ago, the letter-writers emotionally reconnect with events and emotions sometimes long forgotten. One such woman has no memory at all of writing Brody, but upon reading her letter, a plea to Brody to help deaf children like her hearing-impaired brother, a wave of recognition and memories palpably sweep across her face.
As the filmmakers-cultural anthropologists open and read thousands of these letters, a picture of America in 1970, not much different from America in 2023, gradually emerges. Amidst the scam artists and religious nuts are heartrending stories of truly desperate people, some suicidal, some overwhelmed by debt, others battling drug addictions. One of the letter-writers is a poverty-stricken native American whose husband recently suffered a nervous breakdown and she’s worried about her near-starving kids. When the filmmakers track down the now elderly woman and one of her daughters, they find them living in a tiny trailer, still in terrible poverty a full-half-century later. The more things change the more they stay the same.
While some letter-writers are looking for an easy windfall, many are upliftingly selfless, asking Brody for modest sums of money to help others, to fund some worthy cause or another. Some even write solely to express concern and empathy for Brody himself, recognizing the enormous psychological strain he’s under following his announcement.
Hints of Brody’s instability come early. He’s clearly legitimately rich, but when pressed just how much money he has to give away, Brody is cagey, telling reporters amounts varying from tens of millions to billions. His story is like Richie Rich funneled through the self-destructive, contemporaneous ambitions of filmmaker-actor Dennis Hopper. His mother dead by the time he was three years old and raised mostly by nannies and servants, Brody understood the limitations of wealth, and clearly thought giving his away to others more needy served a better purpose. At the same time, it’s equally clear that, initially at least, he was intoxicated by the instant celebrity, which his PCP intake especially transformed into delusions of grandeur. For his wife, Renee, interviewed for Dear Mr. Brody, the pain of her husband’s downfall still resonates.
Maitland’s film is instantly involving and fascinating, and its structure, cutting between Brody’s story and the following-up on the long-lost letters, works very well. My single complaint about the picture is that it unnecessarily bombards the viewer with visual stimuli, including animation and Braverman-esque graphics and music video-style cutting, as if competing with high-concept Hollywood blockbusters geared for short attention span viewers. Though visually impressive in its own way, such breathless pacing really isn’t necessary—its story is already interesting.
Greenwich Entertainment’s DVD of Dear Mr. Brody, filmed in high-def 1.78, is 16:9 enhanced with a decent video transfer for DVD. Audio is offered in both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 stereo mixes, with optional English subtitles, and the disc is Region 1 encoded. No extra features beyond a promotional, possibly straight-to-video trailer; the film was impacted by the COVID pandemic and seems to have little, if any theatrical play, a shame for such a good film.
Dear Mr. Brody is a real truth-is-stranger-than-fiction type story—hence the lack of spoilers here—that deserves to be widely seen. The filmmakers’ decision to bifurcate it, cutting between Brody’s story and its reexamination on those swept up in it 50 years before was wise, resulting in a funny, sad, perceptive little film. Highly Recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV