IIt’s almost strange that there aren’t more documentaries about Robert Downey Jr. There is a very good case for this iron man Actor who has been the biggest movie star in the world for the past decade. For all the opinion pieces you see about the “Death of the A-lister,” Downey Jr. is as big as it gets: an actor whose seemingly effortless on-screen charm has twice made him a star. By 2018, he was reportedly making as much as $75m (£61m) for a single Marvel film. But delve into his past, and it’s not so rosy: pain; Seeks; a career on the brink of total annihilation. When filmmaker Chris Smith approached him to make him the focus of a new documentary, it certainly seemed like a slam dunk. “About two weeks later, the message came back – ‘Absolutely not.’ Not interested,” Smith recalls. “But he thought someone should film his father.”
Of course, Robert Downey Sr isn’t just “his father.” Senior was an artist, a radically unique underground filmmaker best known for his 1969 satire Putney Swope. 2016, Hit — which follows a black ad executive appointed as the unlikely head of a Madison Avenue agency — was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Other films by him are Chafed elbows (about a man having an affair with his mother), Greaser’s palace (an “acid western” that fakes the life of Jesus), and Too much sun (a subversive comedy in which a father leaves his inheritance to whichever of his two gay children is the first to father a grandchild).
Although his films have been championed by some prominent figures in the industry, including director Paul Thomas Anderson, and many of them feature early appearances by his son, Downey Sr.’s oeuvre remains little known to the general public. Smith’s documentary “Sr.”which released on Netflix this week could start to change that.
“Sr.” contains parts you might find in any career retrospective documentary: short clips from the Downey Sr. films; talking heads (incl Little Miss Sunshine actor Alan Arkin and Emmy-winning screenwriter Norman Lear); a liberal splash of biographical detail, from his defiant days in the military to his role in the broader 1960s counterculture. But Smith, who previously directed at Netflix Jim and Andyabout the making of Jim Carreys man in the Moonwas also given extensive access to the Downeys, and most of the film consists of footage shot with Downey Sr. in his final years.
During production, Downey Sr. simultaneously began putting together his own (much more avant-garde) cut of the documentary – we’re also shown excerpts from it. But it was also mid-production when both Smith and the Downeys realized they were making a different film than the one they had set out to make. “The film began as a portrait of an artist — an unconventional filmmaker in the late ’60s and ’70s,” says Smith. “And then, as we started spending more time with Senior, things changed.” What did change, of course, was Downey Sr’s health.
He was ill with Parkinson’s disease and getting worse and worse. The camera stayed with him. In the further course “Sr.” becomes a document of old age, physical decline and the myriad complicated feelings that accompany it. “One of [consequences of this] “Robert Downey Jr. ended up being a much bigger part of the film,” explains Smith. “The film was no longer about looking at a filmmaker in his career, it was about the relationship between a father and a son.” On July 7, 2021, Robert Downey Sr.
Although the film generally depicts a harmonious, loving dynamic between the two personalities, Downey Jr. understates the matter when he describes his father’s relationship with him as “complicated.” The elder Downey had always allowed his son access to all aspects of his life, particularly filmmaking. During RDJ’s childhood, his crib sat in the editing room while his parents – Downey Sr. and his first wife, actress Elsie Ann Ford – perused the dailies at night. RDJ made his screen debut at age five in his father’s 1970 film lba bizarre comedy in which human actors play a kennel full of dogs awaiting euthanasia.
It’s fair to assume that Downey Jr.’s constant and full exposure to filmmaking from such a young age helped shape him to the movie star he became. But outside of work, Senior’s limitless approach to parenting was far more damaging. He was addicted (primarily to cocaine and marijuana) and allowed his son to take drugs with him from the age of six. Downey Jr. has been sober for almost two decades now, but his high-profile battles with addiction nearly cost him his career and his life.
“Often during interviews with Robert [Jr], he’ll make it very clear that we can’t say everything went great,” Smith recalls. “We have to acknowledge that and we cannot paint an overly rosy picture. I think he still had issues that he wanted to address with his father, but at the same time there’s the reality of what is unfolding [with his health]. You must also take this into account. So it was a balance between those two things.”
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There are complex shades of light and dark for Downey Sr. The film strives to highlight the compassion and devotion he showed when his second wife, Laura Ernst, was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s degenerative disease (she died in 1994). His relationship with his son towards the end of his life – and with his grandchildren – is characterized by caring and closeness. Anyone who has ever had to visit an ailing elderly relative in foster care will likely find some of the footage extremely relatable.
The documentary follows Downey Sr. to the end of his life, to the point where he no longer recognizes his son’s face. “You see the last sequence in the film where Robert wanted to spend a moment with his father,” says Smith. “Robert didn’t know that [cinematographer/editor Kevin Ford] Put an iPhone in the corner. If you see the film, it is invaluable material. I don’t think he saw that interaction as a scene, it was more something he did just for himself.”
There is an oddity to Downey Jr.’s eventual success in the Hollywood mainstream; his father was a perpetual outsider, idiosyncratic and anti-commercial through and through. (His only attempt at mainstream studio comedy, 1980 military satire To the academywas a frustrating experience for Senior, who later described it as “one of the worst things in history.”) His son has since gone as literally as mainstream as it gets.
But oddly enough, this rift seemed not to be a source of tension. “I definitely think there were films that were [Downey Sr] didn’t care,” says Smith. “And I think, as Robert would freely admit, his father wouldn’t hide his contempt if he didn’t like something. But you know, when we asked him about the Marvel movies — roughly iron man especially – I remember he loved it. He said, ‘You’ve got a guy who wants to give up his guns!’ I think he was honestly very proud when he saw Robert’s success.” As can be seen in “Sr.”the pride flows both ways.
If Netflix were even a small fraction of Downey Jr.’s fans for movies like Putney Swope, it will be a win for independent cinema and for an artist whose work has long proven too odd and uncompromising for most traditional eulogies. “I think when people saw what Robert Downey Sr. did, they saw cinema differently,” says Smith. “It may not manifest itself as an attempt to emulate his films, but it has evolved the creative process. I think that is undeniable.”
‘Sr.’ now streaming on Netflix
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/sr-robert-downey-jr-netflix-movie-b2237810.html “Sr.”: Robert Downey Jr.’s father and his life full of drugs, taboo-breaking films and parental regrets