Among all the diverse documentaries that had their premieres at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Chris Smith’s Sr. stands as one of the most unique and affecting. The film is on one level a portrait of indie film pioneer Robert Downey Sr., who was part of the American New Wave that energized cinema in the late 1960s. But the film is also a loving tribute to a father by his very famous son, Robert Downey Jr., who participated in the filming with his wife and fellow producer, Susan Downey.
While the film chronicles Downey Sr.’s career and sometimes tumultuous personal life, it is also a poignant — if inevitably incomplete — father-son chronicle. Downey died last year from Parkinson’s Disease, and he was ill during much of the filming, so that adds an element of pathos that is never overstated.
The Bottom Line
A poignant tribute to a filmmaking family.
It must be said that reactions to the senior Downey’s movies were always wildly uneven. His early feature, Chafed Elbows, made in 1966, was shot on 16mm and managed to draw a modest audience after a surprisingly positive notice in The New York Times. His breakthrough movie, Putney Swope, a satire of the advertising business with a large number of Black actors, came out in 1969, the same year that saw the release of Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People. Those movies were often linked together with Putney Swope as proof of an exciting new wave of American cinema. Even though it had a much lower budget than those other movies, it was part of the conversation about a filmmaking renaissance.
His subsequent films — Pound and Greaser’s Palace — had bigger budgets, but they were not so well received, and Downey’s career stalled. (His son made his acting debut at the age of 5 in Pound.) He also fell prey to some of the excesses that bedeviled other members of his generation. He became addicted to cocaine and sank into a self-destructive spiral, and he speaks quite honestly about that in the doc. At one point he relocated to Los Angeles, but the movies he made there — Up the Academy, Too Much Sun and Hugo Pool — did little to revive his career. He did occasional acting jobs in such films as William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
Family always remained important to him. When his second wife, Laura Ernst, was diagnosed with ALS, he supported and nursed her lovingly. And he remained close to his son. This is one part of the film, however, that seems incomplete. There are hints that Downey Sr.’s excesses had a harmful effect on his son, but we can’t help wondering whether Downey Jr.’s well publicized problems with drugs had something to do with his father’s bad influence. This is one subject that needed to be addressed, but which is too often avoided in the doc.
Eventually the senior Downey returned to New York, where he always felt more at home. Late in his life he made a well received documentary, Rittenhouse Square, and enjoyed time with his family. Some of the best scenes in the film record his tender interactions with his son and grandchildren, at first via Zoom during the height of the COVID pandemic, but later with some final and meaningful in-person conversations.
The doc is wisely shot in black and white, to approximate the mood of Downey Sr.’s early movies, though of course there are bursts of color when his later movies are excerpted. Friends of the senior Downey’s — including Norman Lear, Alan Arkin and even Paul Thomas Anderson — contribute vivid reminiscences. Perhaps inevitably, the film moves toward a deeply poignant conclusion, but there are enough rambunctious and slightly zonked-out moments to provide a vivid, full-blooded portrait.