With Sr. now streaming on Netflix, the evolution of Robert Downey Jr. will be complete.
From cutting-edge Brat Pack headliner with Less Than Zero, through to MCU overlord Tony Stark, this poignant and heartfelt ode to his father brings him full circle, allowing him to experience a voyage of self-discovery alongside Robert Downey Sr. – an unsung hero of counterculture filmmaking.
In many ways, Sr. is the perfect documentary on cinema, as it gives audiences a rare glimpse into the creative process from two different perspectives. The second-generation star possesses one of the great Hollywood careers, which has experienced more than a few ups and downs. Caught up in the era of yuppie excess, which extolled the virtues of greed and over consumption, he seemed hellbent on self-destruction.
Jailtime, rehab and a cliched tale of celebrity burnout beckoned until Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys reminded audiences what Downey Jr. could do in 2000. Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang did the same thing five years on opposite Val Kilmer – before Iron Man arrived three years after that. The rest might be MCU ancient history, but for RDJ, there have been some hard fought lessons learnt.
That being said, his father was no stranger to controversy in his heyday, producing an endless ream of experimental movies on a shoestring budget. His film Putney Swope got admitted into the Library of Congress for cultural posterity, while other efforts took pointed potshots at issues of racial unrest. The free-spirited filmmaker had a profound impact on his son and nurtured his talent early on, using him for small parts in independent productions.
What Sr. does is explore those early works, while stepping back and watching Downey Jr. connect with this seismic father figure. Their relationship is tender, considerate, and provocative all at once, as these two charismatic men collaborate on the project together. Using stock footage from previous films, audiences are offered a rare insight into the Downey family dynamic, which remains surprisingly grounded given those involved.
Despite the declining health of his father as their project nears completion, Sr. remains unapologetically optimistic in its depiction of family. An eclectic selection of incidental music also keeps things fresh, just as the decision to shoot in black and white brings a dignity to proceedings. Some might consider the artistic choice a touch pretentious, yet all it manages to do is add gravitas and substance to a film free from studio interference.
It should also be noted that the family Downey are supremely grounded, despite their obvious wealth. What comes through most strongly throughout this documentary is their passion for the creative process – irrespective of what that element might be. A subtle use of split-screen documents conversations between father and son, whether their connection only gets stronger as the elder Downey succumbs to Parkinson’s disease.
Beyond the central relationship of these two men, other creative collaborators also feature in talking head segments, waxing lyrical about their connection to Downey Sr., offering further context alongside a selection of film clips, giving his early life an unwavering sense of urgency in line with those maverick sensibilities. Not only offering up a pertinent comparison to the output of his movie star son, but demonstrating that underneath it all, his son is more concerned with story than anything materialistic.
Another element which makes Sr. unique amongst documentaries, is the decision to have two different films being made on one subject, allowing the original Robert Downey to embrace the creative process one last time. Aided and abetted by his son, who affords him every creative opportunity, there are moments which elevate the experience, and turn it into a thing of beauty.
Shot in part over the pandemic, Sr. also deals with physical and mental decline with admirable honesty. Although jokes are made about symptomatic tremors and momentary issues of balance, it becomes apparent that there is only one endgame here. That Robert Downey Jr. is brave enough to have this documented for consumption, says more about the man than any amount of column inches ever could.
This is a documentary which celebrates living, and what it means to leave a legacy. There is nothing staged, nothing which seeks to manipulate emotions, while ultimately the Downey family have created something remarkable. A film which shows how cinema can bring people together, bond generations over a common interest and capture something timeless along the way.
With 'Sr.,' Robert Downey Jr. may have helped create one of the great documentaries. Something which seeks to celebrate cinema, alongside a filmmaker in Robert Downey Sr. who helped shape the opinions of an acting icon, giving audiences an invaluable peak into the world of team Downey, while they share a very personal journey.
Review: 'Sr' is a poignant portrait of creative passions from Team Downey