By Megan Bianco
Robert Downey Jr. is now one of the most famous movie stars alive and has arguably the greatest comeback story in Hollywood history, going from Oscar nominee to prison inmate to Marvel Studios’ leading man.
But before all the fame and fortune, to a lot of people in NYC and L.A., he was—as he refers to himself on camera in Chris Smith’s new documentary Sr.—“just Bob Downey’s kid.”
Robert Downey Sr. was, along with John Cassavetes and Andy Warhol, one of the most prominent directors in independent filmmaking throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These days, I think it’s safe to say his son has completely eclipsed him in popularity. As we see in Smith’s doc, that appears to be totally fine with both men.
Sr. is, in simplest terms, a loving farewell from RDJ (Robert) to RDS (known as Bob or Senior in his later years) before he would succumb to Parkinson’s. There is some documentation of RDJ’s rise from Hollywood kid to lead actor, but the primary focus is seeing RDS’ legacy and career through both his own eyes and his son’s, as well as childhood memories growing up in an artsy environment with a writer-director dad and actress mom (Elsie Downey).
We get nostalgic and realistic accounts of RDS as both an artist and parent, with the younger Downey sharing how exciting and educational it was growing up on film sets and around other creative people.
But it also acknowledges how unorthodox it was to regularly be near alcohol and drugs as a child. Of course, recaps on the rise of RDS’ legacy with cult films such as Chafed Elbows (1966), Pound (1970), Greaser’s Palace (1972) and his landmark Putney Swope (1969) are also included.
Smith appropriately shoots the family portrait with both black and white, and color, cinematography to reflect the careers and home lives of the Downeys. The most interesting aspects of Sr. to me are the too-brief sections on Elise and on RDS’ second wife, Laura Ernst, during which we learn RDJ got his famous wit more from Elsie than his dad.
There’s a nice ode to Laura as well, who was a positive influence on RDS and son, and sadly died of ALS in 1994. Though, I have to say my favorite part of Sr. was RDJ bluntly claiming filmmaker and former RDS protégé P.T. Anderson is Senior’s dream son.
While Sr. is a nice, smooth 89 minutes, there were a few times I wished Smith and the Downeys had gone into more depth—such as clarifying how cinema icons and commentators Norman Lear and Alan Arkin are connected to RDS personally and professionally or why exactly RDS and Elsie’s marriage ended.
But all in all, Sr. is touching and well-made viewing for people who are interested in either father or son.