Netflix documentary film “Sr.”, which was released in last week, is a free-flowing tribute to one notable American filmmaker who had a very interesting life and career. Because I have not seen any of his work yet (Shame on me!), I wish the documentary presented more of his work and career for enlightening me a bit, but the documentary is still fairly engaging as gradually delving into the complex human relationship between him and his more famous son along its amorphous narrative, and it is often poignant to observe what is exchanged between them.
His name is Robert Downey Sr., who is incidentally the father of, yes, Robert Downey Jr. During the 1960s, Downey Sr. rose to considerable prominence thanks to his several successful underground films such as “Chafed Elbows” (1968) and “Putney Swope” (1969), and his son still remembers how busy and interesting his childhood environment was during that time. Young Downey Jr. frequently watched Downey Sr. and others busily working on their latest project in his family residence, and he even appeared in one of his father’s films. Although he was very young at that time, he showed considerable potentials as a performer, and that was the beginning of his long movie acting career.
As Downey Sr. frankly admits at one point, he did not know much about filmmaking from the very beginning, but he decided to try anyway, and, what do you know, he turned out to be talented enough to develop his own filmmaking style and approach. Although it was always difficult to get his films financed in one way or another, he always found ways to overcome his small production budget, and he tells an amusing episode on how his blatantly frank attitude managed to convince some rich guy to sign a big fat check for the production of “Greaser’s Palace” (1972).
Although his significant achievements were later eclipsed by his son’s much bigger career success associated with those Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks, many of Downey Sr.’s works have been regarded as the important artistic works from that era since they came out. As a matter of fact, “Putney Swope” was actually included in the US National Film Registry several years ago, and he is certainly proud of that as shown from one brief moment in the documentary.
As often interviewed by his son, Downey Sr. is ready to tell all in front of the camera, and he even becomes a main part of the shooting of the documentary, which is incidentally co-produced by his son. While observing the work progress from director/co-cinematographer Chris Smith, who is mainly known for “American Movie” (1999) and recently made Netflix documentary “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (2019), and the crew members of the documentary, Downey Sr. decides to be an active part of the production, and the mood becomes playful when he has the camera focus on several ducks living in a pond of his neighborhood in New York City.
Around that point, the documentary comes to pay more attention on the relationship between Downey Sr. and his son, and their frank conversations are touching because they are well aware of Downey Sr.’s incurable illness. There are still some unresolved matters between them despite their mutual love and affection, and Downey Sr. is willing to discuss with his son on how he inadvertently exposed his young son to drugs during that wild filmmaking period of his – and how that led to lots of troubles in his son’s career and life during the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the medical condition of Downey Sr. gets worsen as time goes by, but he does not stop participating in the production of the documentary. Becoming less mobile than before, he knows that he does not have much time now, but he is still passionate about the production of the documentary nonetheless, and we see how he does some editing job while lying on his bed.
Eventually, there comes a point where Downey Sr. cannot go on anymore, and that certainly affects Downey Jr. a lot as shown from his little private conversation with his therapist. Just like his father, he is totally frank and sincere without any vain pretense, and he cannot help but a bit more emotional in the middle of the conversation.
As many of you know, Downey Sr. died on July 7th, 2021, and the documentary thankfully avoids any cheap sentimentality while frankly recognizing the sadness of his family members including his son. When he holds a little private memorial for his father, Downey Jr. delivers a sincere and succinct eulogy for his father in front of his several family members, and that is more than enough for us to sense the feeling of immense loss from him.
In conclusion, “Sr.”, which recently received the Best Documentary Award from the National Board of Review a few days ago, is rather uneven at times due to its free-flowing narrative, but it often amuses and touches you while showing lots of respect and affection toward Downey Sr., and its offbeat storytelling approach is surely something he may approve of. Although it is not exactly informative, it ignites some curiosity on his works in my mind at least, and I think I should check out some of his notable works as soon as possible.