On the subject of Robert Downey Jr., public knowledge of and scuttlebutt about the actor is more than plentiful. The highly paid hero of the Marvel movie universe, whose depiction of Chaplin earned Oscar buzz and who suffered prolonged addiction angst needs no real introduction. None is given here. Jr.’s film is all about Sr., much lesser-known in the mainstream movie world but with underground cred on his side.
Robert Downey Sr. (1936-2021) is best known for his best film, the madcap advertising world satire Putney Swope, and to a smaller degree, his indulgent, hallucinogenic Western Greaser’s Palace. Along with other oddities in his early, experimental filmography, Downey Sr. spent some years unhappily in Hollywood, creating a few golden turkeys. Junior appeared in several of his father’s films, including as an obscenity-spewing 5-year-old in Pound and later using his Hollywood clout to get his father’s films made in the ’80s.
Junior’s objectives for this intriguing documentary included making his father’s work more publicly known, seeking closure on the father-son front in the last few years of the elder’s life, and — however accidentally — formulating a new, highly personal, and experimental doc concoction. As Junior explains of the film, in the film, “This feels like trying to close the circle with all that patriarchal thing, with all the upsides and downsides of it and saying ‘Okay, you’re a grown man now.’”
Not surprisingly, the experimental impulse comes from his father’s insistence on taking directorial reins of the project, creating his own parallel director’s cut of the film, which becomes a mysterious satellite around Junior’s filmic structure. It’s all loose, complicated, and not necessarily linear — in other words, the portrait of Senior is also a portrait emanating from Senior, befitting his half-anarchic creative credo: “Everything is everything. … You try something; if it doesn’t work, you throw it out. It’s called ‘Follow the film.’”
Presented in black and white, giving the film a classic and era-hopping timelessness, Sr. manages to be a personal love letter and farewell from Junior, who has transcended his addiction struggles and is settled into family life. But it is an honest and unflinching tribute, as well, dealing directly with the fact of his own father’s past addiction patterns and possible corruptive influence on the showbiz kid.
Granted, Junior’s upbringing was on a semi-lunatic fringe of showbiz.
Sr. is available on Netflix.