Robert Downey Jr. has been a star for so long—and been one of the industry’s premier marquee draws since 2srcsrc8, when he assumed the foundational Marvel Cinematic Universe role of Tony Stark in Iron Man—that it’s easy to forget that he’s the son of movie royalty. Sr. aims to correct that potential oversight, serving as a loving tribute to Downey’s dad Robert Downey Sr., an iconoclastic filmmaker whose work in the late ’6srcs and ’7srcs was at the forefront of the independent cine-counterculture movement. Directed by Chris Smith (American Movie), it’s a non-fiction biopic that’s infused with the unique humor and creativity of its subject, as well as steeped in the complicated but palpable love shared by a father and son in the years leading up to the former’s passing from Parkinson’s disease in July 2src21.
Premiering at this year’s New York Film Festival (ahead of an eventual Netflix debut), Sr. is shot exclusively in black-and-white in what feels like kinship with Sr.’s seminal early features, made on the cheap and the fly in New York City with a ragtag group of collaborators who knew that the thing wasn’t money but, rather, inspired, out-there artistry. Sr. was, as his son says, a filmmaker who existed in a constant state of being either “broke” or “flush,” and given that the latter condition meant that he had $5srcsrc in the bank, stability was never consistently attained. It was in this environment that Jr. grew up, sleeping in a crib in the room next door to where his dad and his mom, actress Elsie Ann Ford, worked on dailies, and his parents’ passion for cinema is the obvious and clear genesis of his own lifelong vocation, which began on Sr.’s 197src Pound (about a group of dogs, all played by people, awaiting execution at the title location) with the auspicious first line, “Have any hair on your balls?”
Sr. was a “troublemaker” whose films were wild, crazy, and unbeholden to convention or propriety. They were natural outgrowths—and reflections—of the roiling social period in which they were produced. The writer/director’s career peaked early, at least in terms of acclaim, with 1969’s Putney Swope, an enduring satire about civil rights-era turmoil, hypocrisy, rage, and absurdity that made him a national name (and resulted in a Life magazine article titled, hilariously, “Robert Downey Makes Vile Movies”). A lengthy and not particularly joyous stint in Los Angeles followed—as friends and collaborators Alan Arkin and Norman Lear explain, Sr. was a New York kind of guy. One can feel that not only in the edgy, electric energy of his movies, but in new sequences of him walking around the metropolis, finding wonder in a group of ducks swimming in a pond in the courtyard of his high-rise apartment building, in the sight of a man doing an impromptu workout on scaffolding, or in the sound of traffic, boats and people as he sits beside the water on a beautiful sunny day.
Sr.’s professional successes and failures are chronologically recounted in Sr., but Smith’s film is nothing if not exceptionally structured, largely because he’s making a movie with an actor about a director who wants more than a bit of say in how he’s depicted. Beginning with scenes of Sr. and Jr. planning shots on the spur of the moment, telling Smith what set-ups to use, and staging second takes, they turn the proceedings into a collaborative hybrid endeavor. Further twisting things up, Sr. only agrees to participate in his son and Smith’s doc if he’s allowed to make a concurrent self-portrait project himself, meaning that Sr. routinely flip-flops between Smith’s footage and Sr.’s material, both of which quickly overlap, as when Smith fixates on Sr. toiling away at a personal editing bay on his own documentary.
When coupled with clips of Jr. and Sr. chatting on the phone, Jr. goofing off with his young son and speaking with his therapist about his father’s impending end, and Sr. discussing the Army plane crash that gave birth to his travel-related neuroses, Sr.’s multi-perspective format lends it a vibrant home movie-style intimacy and warmth. The affection felt between Sr. and Jr. is moving in its sincerity and openness, and all the more amazing for the fact that—as is occasionally alluded to—not everything was a bed of roses between the two during Jr.’s childhood, thanks in part to substance abuse issues that were partially brought about by Sr.’s decision to give his kid narcotics at an early age. Neither man shies away from those painful chapters in their lives, but nor do they linger on them; those topics casually arise amidst longer conversations about their rollercoaster paths—which, for Sr., also included a divorce from first wife Elsie and the loss of his second spouse Laura Ernst to ALS—and therefore feel like the sorts of scarred-up wounds that all parents and children deal with over time.
The affection felt between Sr. and Jr. is moving in its sincerity and openness, and all the more amazing for the fact that—as is occasionally alluded to—not everything was a bed of roses between the two during Jr.’s childhood…
When Jr. asks his dad if he felt accepted by the status quo in the wake of Putney Swope, Sr. slyly deflects by stating, “That’s a pretty interesting theory.” And yet at other times, he’s curtly candid, such as his overarching directorial philosophy to “follow the film.” There’s wit and poetry sprinkled throughout Sr., with Smith cannily letting his stars seize control of the frame whenever they like—the sweetest: Jr. having his son Exton amusingly quote his grandfather’s own lines to him—while nonetheless regulating the proceedings so that they exist at the intersection of celebratory and sorrowful. With a verve that isn’t diminished by his increasingly debilitating condition, Sr. proves an indefatigable and charming presence, never missing an opportunity to modestly avoid praise or suggest some filmmaking opportunity. And Jr., meanwhile, comes across as an actor/son whose spirit is hopelessly, and permanently, intertwined with his father/director, about whom he ultimately admits he cherishes both for what he did and didn’t do.
Through it all, what resonates is the love these two men share for the medium that’s made them who they are—and is, via this project, memorializing their final moments together. Consequently, Smith’s documentary is something else as well: a snapshot of dual cinematic lives that speaks to the movies’ magical ability to reveal, unite, and remember.