How could a giant of independent film, the man who created cult hits like Putney Swope, father the star of Hollywood’s largest blockbuster, a franchise so commercial that every few months or so, a debate ensues as to whether his movies are cinema at all? Such is the unasked, but nevertheless present question beneath the surface of Sr., a new Netflix documentary detailing the lives and relationship of director Robert Downey Sr. and his son, the actor Robert Downey Jr. What the film, a surprisingly solid work about the pair, comes to show, is an intimate relationship between two masters of their respective approaches to moviemaking. In doing so, the film reveals the nature of a relationship that exists both through and beyond the screen.
Sr. is really two movies. There is the movie about Sr. that Jr. authors with the film’s director, Chris Smith. And then a film that Sr. works on throughout the shooting of Sr. A short film made from fragments and scenes that Sr. captures as he walks about New York. It is in those streets that Sr. found his voice as a filmmaker. Drawing inspiration from the people he encountered, some of whom he hired to act in his work, he became a key figure in the American independent cinema of the 1960s and 70s. As we watch Sr. make a film, we learn about his life, yes. But also get to see his wild mind and eye at work. Such moments are a pleasure to watch.
Refreshingly, the film stays mostly clear of the all-too-common talking-head-style of documentary that overwhelms us each year. Exposition is saved mostly for archival footage or discussions between Sr. and Jr. In another formal deviation, all original footage presents in black and white. A gesture toward Sr.’s own work, perhaps? Or an attempt to mask a Netflix production with the veneer of an independent film? Whatever the reason, the decision is far less successful than the “movie within a movie.” The film often looks like an Instagram filter, thus giving an unhelpful finish to the otherwise rich cinematography of Smith and Kevin Ford.
In watching Sr., it becomes clear that the most infectious bond between the two is their love for amusement. They amuse themselves, those around them, and, most important of all, each other. Chasing that next laugh seems to be their primary motivation. It is how they relate to each other and how they see the world. This commitment to self-amusement drives their approach to entertainment. And thus, it becomes the clearest link between Sr.’s work and the persona Jr. brings to his blockbuster roles.
The film also acts as a fine introduction to Sr.’s films. After watching, many will hopefully click over and check out his work. If they do, they will find some of Jr.’s, who was born in 1965, earliest performances. Like, for example, his film debut as “Puppy” in Pound (1970). Or an uncredited role as “Small Boy in Covered Wagon” in Greaser’s Palace (1972). Few stars today appear as comfortable in front of the camera as Robert Downey Jr. In watching clips of young Jr. on the set of Sr.’s films, it becomes clear that the suave demeanor Jr. brings to his film roles today began there. In such moments, the film plays like Jr.’s own origin story.
The film mentions Sr.’s influence on other film stars too. Many viewers, for instance, will enjoy clips from an unreleased home movie by director Paul Thomas Anderson. A noted Sr. fan, he followed the older director around on a train one afternoon with his camera. He films Sr. moving about the train and his conversations with his fellow passengers. He seems to capture Sr. in his natural habitat: the minutiae of everyday life. After the clips play, Jr. jokes that PTA is the son Sr. wished he had.
Another version of this film, a more essayistic one, could exist as a work that really unpacks the differences between these two men and their respective careers. Much of the film details Sr.’s disdain for Hollywood. He is an independent man of New York. That Jr. sits at number two on the list of highest-grossing leading actors makes for an interesting contrast. The film dances around the topic without ever taking the full plunge. Instead, Sr. opts for the personal: telling the story of a father’s life through the eyes of a son. Jr. co-produced the film with his wife, Susan Downey, thus raising a number of questions about cinematic power and privilege. Viewers looking to learn more about a father, son, and their movies will find plenty to enjoy. Those looking for a more critical take, however, may feel unsatisfied.
With the power Jr. exercised over the creation of this film also comes a number of intimate, compelling moments that no one else could have brought to the screen. The film follows Sr. right up until the end. He died from Parkinson’s disease in the summer of 2021 at the age of 85. We see Sr. in his final days, immobile and in bed, suffering from the effects of the disease. In the role of son-as-author, Jr. brings us to Sr.’s bedside, where years of emotion come to the surface. It is a raw and honest look at their relationship. And as his father nears death, the camera follows Jr. into one of his therapy sessions, where we see him in tears, trying to process all that has happened and how he can be present for his father in his final days.
By the film’s end, the work becomes about a lot more than a father-son relationship or the history of two important figures in movie history. It becomes a beautiful eulogy. A meditation on life and how to say goodbye. And, as Jr. hugs his own son, about continuing on.
Sr. is currently available to stream on Netflix. Watch the film’s trailer here, and don’t forget to check out our monthly Netflix streaming guide for more recommendations.