When Chris Smith — a documentarian who had tackled everything from Method acting run amuck to a music festival falling apart — was asked what subjects he might be interested in pursuing in terms of a new project, he didn’t mention a “what.” Instead, he gave his producers a “who”: Robert Downey Jr. The American Movie filmmaker thought that the former man in the iron suit would make a fascinating subject for a doc. When he approached the star, however, Downey demurred. He wasn’t interested in someone doing a film about him. But he did mention a counter-offer: What about my dad? You should film that guy. Come up to our place in the Hamptons, the younger Robert said. Bring your cameras. Pops will be there with us. See what happens.
For those who only think of Robert Downey Sr. as the father of the guy from the Marvel movies, Sr. is happy to fill in some blanks from here to paternity. And for those of us who already worship of the altar of the elder Downey, this Netflix doc — it drops on the streaming service this weekend — is a chance to see a true indie-movie O.G. potentially get the credit he deserves. Long before Jr. had his own career in show business, Downey Sr. had made a name for himself as a ’60s New York underground filmmaker with a knack for pushing envelopes, offending timid sensibilities and giving the establishment the finger. Literally, in the case of the poster for his breakthrough movie, the 1969 up-against-the-wall-Madison-Ave. satire Putney Swope. [Full disclosure: I saw that ’69 acid-tipped comedy about race relations, revolution and the counter-culture getting a consumerist makeover, as a kid a few weeks after our first neighborhood video store opened. I rented the tape solely because of that image on the box, and it permanently warped my sensibilities. A thousand thank yous, Sr.]
So Smith and his fellow producer/cameraman Kevin Ford start rolling film on the old man, and it turns out that Downey Sr. is no more interested in someone telling his life story than his son is. As a sort of bargaining chip, they let him make his own concurrent, alternate version of the doc while they’re shooting their take. He’s already directing Smith on where to shoot, how to frame things, etc. — once a filmmaker, always a filmmaker. Downey 1.0 has spent his entire artistic life breaking rules or simply ignoring them outright; the dial on his gruff, Gotham-born-and-bred attitude is still permanently set somewhere between IDGAF and GFY. So why not give him the chance to do his thing while they do theirs?
It pays to know the backstory of Sr. going in, which helps explain the sort of beautifully loose, free-flowing way it intercuts a very traditional nonfiction template with the subject’s own tangential bits of footage. Here’s Downey Sr. telling his son about a plane crash he experienced while in the army, which led to him getting thrown in the stockade, which led to a sympathetic jailer giving him pen and paper so he could pass the time by writing…which eventually led to a life compulsively behind the lens. And here’s some random ducks and a few landscape shots Downey himself shot, in lieu of actually talking about himself. Occasionally, we see Sr. watching the footage he’s shot and editing it with Ford’s help, giving the whole affair a hall-of-mirrors effect.
We also get the requisite clips of Sr.’s movies, and a sense of the era in which avant-garde, grainy 16mm movies about a guy marrying his mom (big up Chafed Elbows!) could inspire a small experimental theater’s ticket line to worm its way around the block. Smith started his documentary career with the story of an independent filmmaker making his lo-fi, now-budget dream come true in 1999’s American Movie, and this look at a true D.I.Y. cinema legend is his own way of coming full circle. Eventually, a chronological narrative starts to form, as we see early successes lead to other opportunities, a West Coast relocation, drugs, more drugs, a second marriage, and rehabilitation. Family remains a through line, if not exactly a center of stability. Sr. cast his then-five-year-old son Robert in a 1970 film called Pound, an allegory featuring actors playing dogs, and gave the boy his first onscreen line: “Got any hair on your balls?” Asked about his dad as a parent, the grown-up Jr. declares it was “complicated, in that most of his attention was on the process of chasing the muse.”
And then a funny thing happens on the way to Sr.’s portrait of an artist: It ends up becoming about not one but two men, dual reluctance be damned. Halfway through filming, Covid hits and leaves Jr. stuck in Los Angeles while Sr. is still in New York. The latter’s Parkinson’s disease is also beginning to get the best of the octogenarian. So father and son start talking over Zoom and phone calls, with Smith and Ford filming each side. The conversations begin to have a push-pull dynamic, along with an incredible sense of candor and honesty. We here about the effect that a bohemian lifestyle has on kids and what happens when one artist’s demons mirror another’s. Downey Jr. has long earned the right to stop addressing his lost-weekend years, which has now become a career footnote, yet he opens up about it for Smith’s cameras. Eventually, Jr. and his son go back east to see Sr., at which part a serious leap of faith completely turns into an incredible example of trust. Name another billion-dollar movie star who would let someone film a virtual therapy session (!) while is dad is literally dying in the next room.
That none of this vital last half of Sr. feels narcissistic or performative — it’s the opposite of that infamously cringeworthy Truth or Dare sequence — is a testament to Smith, his editors and his subjects. Even a casual viewer can tell that Jr. keeps wanting to ask his dad questions that Sr. might not want to answer, and that they both know that time is running out. Jr. later claims that this isn’t “a father and son” story, and that it’s more about life, death and what happens in between: “We’re here, we do stuff and then we’re gone.” But his claim about the former is only half right; it’s not just about one father-and-son story. Seeing cameras were a joyous thing, Jr. says early on, because that meant that he’d get to spend time with his dad. And when the movie cuts to a shot of the younger Downey having one last chance to hang out with him, a camera literally between them and buffering their exchanges yet capturing the moment permanently for posterity, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of happiness for these two men even as you view a goodbye through your own tears.