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In retrospect, the signs were always there when it came to Michael J. Brody.
Heir to the late inventor of oleomargarine J.F. Jelke, Brody was a handsome, charismatic, and generous 21-year-old hippy with a fortune to use as he pleased. So when he popped up in the press in 1970 declaring that he was going to give all his money away to anyone who needed it, his old schoolmates weren’t really all that surprised. As it turns out, Brody’s magnanimity was also a mask for unresolved mental health issues exacerbated by serious drug use.
That didn’t stop people all over the world from phoning him, showing up at his doorstep in Scarsdale, N.Y., and especially writing letters asking for his help. Those letters are the heart of writer-director Keith Maitland’s documentary Dear Mr. Brody, an account of Brody’s sad and troubled moment of fame. While the young millionaire and his friends made every effort to open as many of them as they could, the vast bulk ended up in boxes stored in a warehouse, only recently discovered by producer Ed Pressman’s assistant Melissa Glassman.
The letters are by turns heartbreaking, whimsical, sometimes even practical, with accompanying photos, trinkets and drawings. Maitland intersperses latter day readings of these artifacts with filmic recreations of the authors, as well as interviews with Brody’s wife Renee, son Michael, and various companions. All are just as bemused at the story decades after the fact, and in Renee’s case she’s clearly still processing the strange and tragic story.
Unexpected anecdotes like Brody passing a joint to Walter Cronkite, or throwing money into the crowd at a Grateful Dead concert keeps Dear Mr. Brody from being completely downbeat, but it’s still a somber meditation on media, greed, and human nature.
Dear Mr. Brody
4.5 stars out of 5
Produced by Melissa Glassman
Landmark Cinemas City Centre 9 on Oct. 2 at 9 p.m., and Oct. 9 at noon