The 1970s marked an era steeped in liminality — a stepping stone of decades. In the collective memory, it confronted a cultural crater left by the 1960s’ radical ideals while inevitably setting the stage for the titanic conservatism of the 1980s. However, beyond its tacky shag carpets and glistening “disco tits,” the 1970s evoked melancholy, fatigue and uncertainty about the future’s course.
Director Keith Maitland explores these anxieties and their endurance in his captivating documentary “Dear Mr. Brody.” The film chronicles an obscure, baffling chapter from the precipice of 1970 when “hippie-millionaire” Michael Brody Jr. declared his intent to give away his fortune to anybody claiming to need it.
Brody came to possess the money in 1969 when he was a ripe 21 years old. The wealth came from his grandfather, John Jelke, whose successful margarine business christened Jelke as the so-called “oleomargarine king.” After marrying Renée DuBois in January of 1970, Brody decided that he simply didn’t need the money he inherited to support his lifestyle and announced to the media his intent to create world peace by dispersing his wealth. Throughout the next 10 days, Brody and his wife received tens of thousands of letters from Americans hoping for a little financial cushion. The story spiraled, and many letters were left unopened. A few years ago, however, producer Melissa Robyn Glassman stumbled upon boxes of sealed letters addressed to Brody.
“Dear Mr. Brody” fits together like a mosaic. Through interviews with Brody’s wife, friends and acquaintances, the documentary pieces together a psychedelic and personal portrait of Brody in all his swoopy-haired, leopard print idealism. The news footage where Brody talks to reporters is fascinating. He flickers between an articulate, if extravagant, protester against class disparities and an irked, overwhelmed rich kid — the latter of which feels particularly cruel, especially when Brody’s de facto bodyguard recalls how they used to parse through the pile of letters for fake appeals because the real ones were too devastating.
The documentary is unafraid of the complications and contradictions in Brody’s character. At the same time, however, it has a tendency to relieve him from scrutiny. As the documentary wraps up, several people who wrote to Brody express their thanks for his efforts, and the sequence leaves a strange aftertaste as it valorizes Brody — as if his mere good intentions absolve his rampant hubris and the tragedy of the unopened letters.
The true hero of this documentary is Glassman. Her commitment to opening each letter — and allowing these personal stories to be heard — is inspiring. When it focuses on the letters and their authors, “Dear Mr. Brody” is humble and honest, a welcomed contrast to the experimental techniques found in its treatment of Brody’s storyline. Glassman invites select people who wrote to Brody — nearly 50 years ago — to reread their letter. The writers reunite with their past selves, and the raw emotional responses captured on camera are unequivocally the most memorable and heartfelt moments in the documentary.
The story that steers “Dear Mr. Brody” is both ephemeral and enduring. “Hippie-millionaires” may be extinct, but the bleak realities of economic inequality persist in an era of crowdfunded medical procedures and controversial stimulus checks. An enlightening and sometimes imbalanced movie, “Dear Mr. Brody” illustrates a tale that is still being told, addressing systemic problems that cannot easily be written off.