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The filmmaker Robert Downey deserved more than a traditional bio-doc. He made films outside the system, often feeling like they were coming into form as you watched them. There's such spontaneity to his work that a standard talking-head approach to his art would almost feel like an insult. Thankfully, his son Robert Downey Jr. and ace documentarian Chris Smith ("American Movie") understood that, and so they approached the moving "Sr." in a manner that befitted its subject matter. It's a Russian nesting doll of a bio-doc, a piece about family as much as it is filmmaking because the two are inextricable for its subject.
Shot in black-and-white that makes everything feel a little more like spying on someone's home movies, "Sr." centers on a father and son who shaped each other's lives and still clearly carry a great deal of love for one another (and a few unresolved issues). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robert Downey became a cultural touchstone, finding his most success in the anarchic satire "Putney Swope." Smith, Downey's son, and the filmmaker reveal their process throughout "Sr.," discussing how to frame certain scenes and even presenting alternate versions of some of them in a way that Downey Sr. would cut as opposed to Smith. (I wanted more of this for what it reveals about Downey's process vs. the doc about him.) As a result, it becomes a documentary not just about history but about the very current art of filmmaking, capturing three voices coming together to produce what you see on screen.
While that approach might lead to a cold, distanced, and almost formally clinical result for some projects, the opposite happens in "Sr." By pulling down the curtain of the process, it's like we're in the room with Robert and his family more than we would be in a more traditional bio-doc. The asides or glances that would be cut in a more polished version of this film elevate it into something personal. There are times when the home movie approach can be overly calculated, and I think there's a version of "Sr." that's even rougher around the edges, more verité and less refined, because it's the little beats that feel so genuine that give it the emotional power it achieves by the end.
Because you see, Robert Downey is dying in this film—he passed in August 2021, and our very own Sergio Mims wrote a beautiful tribute here—and so the entire project has the power of finality. It's a eulogy being co-written by the person it eulogizes. The emotional access given to Smith by its subjects is remarkable, especially in scenes where we see one of the most famous superhero actors in history literally break down as he discusses his father in therapy sessions. The truth is that Junior's addictions were fed by a man who was so counter-culture that he gave his kid drugs at a very young age, and that's a demon that even death can't fully extinguish, but it's fascinating to see Downey wrestling with it.
Some of the family histories could have used some deeper digging, and the documentary also sometimes feels like it's playing tug-of-war between something one would watch in a film studies class and something one would watch in a psychology class. I'm pretty sure its subjects would argue that's intentional. Film and psychology aren't just similar, they're family.
On Netflix today.
Robert Downey Sr. as Self
Robert Downey Jr. as Self
Chris Smith as Self
Paul Thomas Anderson as Self
Alan Arkin as Self
Sean Hayes as Self
Norman Lear as Self
Lawrence Wolf as Self