In 1970, Robert Downey Jr. made his onscreen debut at the age of five in his father’s film called Pound. Now, nearly more than five decades later, the father-son duo embark on a final cinematic venture in Netflix’s latest documentary, Sr.
Filmed over the last three years of his father’s life, Sr. is titled the way it is because Robert Downey Jr. shares the same name as his father. Through the course of the documentary, Jr. presents a personal race against time as he attempts to capture as much as possible of his father, who at the time was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Director Chris Smith not only lets Sr. be the primary narrator of the film, he also routinely hands over his directorial reins to the latter. As a filmmaker who primarily worked between the 1960s and 1990s, Sr. is described by his cinematic peers as having an “odd sense of humour”. Sr. specialised in what can be called an absurdist form of cinema, one that deviated from the Hollywood norm, while claiming to retain the essence of the ‘Great American Comedy.’ This absurdism bleeds into the documentary as he is given control of it and dictates how this story of a family in Hollywood plays out.
Described by Jr. as a “looming figure,” Sr. is not only the main character of the documentary, he is also the foremost inspiration for his son. Since Jr.’s most visible inherited asset from his father is his love for films, that is also what becomes the focal point of the documentary.
Starting off the film, Jr. informs the audience that this is in fact his foray into trying to understand his father. Across its 90-minute run, Jr. then explores the contours of Sr. as a filmmaker, what informed Sr.’s style, how he replicated the same on screen, and the effects his career had on his family. At one point, Sr. turns to the camera to say that ultimately, film is not the be-all and end-all; that there is more to a person. This documentary, however, goes around in a cinematic circle to film Sr.’s life only through the lens of his career.
As he talks about his early films, the current documentary mirrors his style of filmmaking. Called the “Sr. cut,” a version of the documentary that he edited, cuts in and out of the main documentary. The main documentary itself is stylistically poignant, shot entirely in black-and-white, in which the camera never sits still for too long giving it the feeling of a home-movie. Sr.’s near-constant commentary as he gives directions on how a shot should be filmed, and where a segment should be placed, fills the film. The only time his voice takes a bit of a backseat is when the documentary reaches the point of discussing his Parkinson’s. However, Sr. barely misses a beat to again to tell the producers how it should be portrayed, pointing at his hand and telling the cameraman to film the shaking.
In these moments, the film goes beyond a documentary and also becomes an act of self-documentation. “Do you ever feel like you’re living in one of your films?” the producer asks Sr., who replies, “Right now!”
Towards the end, the film switches to a more somber tone, and with Sr.’s demise on the horizon (the filmmaker passed away in July 2021), the conversations shift to both his and Jr.’s struggle with addiction. This reveals a slightly more complex relationship between the father and son than what we were been offered earlier. These are the segments where the film hits its peaks, moving beyond the appreciation of an artist, to looking at the artist as a person. However, much of the time in the film is spent validating Sr.’s particular style of filmmaking again and again, and in doing so, it never sits still to examine it beyond the initial layer.
This also brings into question these documentary formats that essentially obliterate objectivity, as the person doing the ‘documenting’ happens to be so closely related to the subject. Does it continue to remain an act of documentation or does it become an exercise of eulogising?
The final moments of Sr. deal with Sr.’s passing away, as the Parkinson’s catches up and the filmmaker becomes less vocal. Jr. brings his own son for him to spend some time with Sr., who, by this point is bedridden. As Jr. sits next to Sr. asking him questions, it is shown that Sr.’s memory has also started to falter to the point that he fails to recognise his own son. This marks possibly the only time that Sr. is unable to give directions on how to film him, making this feel slightly intrusive, a private moment we should not be privy to.
This limbo is where the film finds itself for much of its duration, struggling how to present deeply personal family memories for public consumption.
Tying back nearly every aspect of his life, back to the films he made, Sr. is very cohesive documentary about the Downey duo’s relationship with cinema, presented in an absurdly disjointed manner. It is also the final meditation on the relationship between a father and a son, and worth the watch for the emotions it seeks to unfold.
Sr. is currently available for streaming on Netflix