Of all the diverse documentaries that had their premieres at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Chris Smith’s Sr. is one of the most unique and touching. The film is on one level a portrait of independent 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’s also a poignant, if inevitably incomplete, father-son chronicle. Downey died last year of Parkinson’s disease and he was ill for much of filming, which adds a pathetic element that is never overstated.
A poignant tribute to a family of filmmakers.
It must be said that the reactions to the films of senior Downey have always been very uneven. His first feature film, Rubbed elbowsmade in 1966, was shot on 16mm and managed to attract a modest audience after surprisingly positive reviews in The New York Times. His breakthrough film, Putney Swipea satire of the advertising industry with a large number of black actors, was released in 1969, the same year that saw the release of Easy Rider, midnight cowboy, The Wild BandHaskell-Wexler medium coldand Francis Ford Coppola rain people. These films were often linked to Putney Swipe as evidence of an exciting new wave of American cinema. Even though it had a much lower budget than those other films, it was part of the conversation about a cinematic renaissance.
His next films — Book and Greaser’s Palace – had bigger budgets, but they weren’t so well received and Downey’s career came to a halt. (His son made his acting debut at the age of 5 in Book.) He also fell prey to some of the excesses that plagued other members of his generation. He got addicted to cocaine and went into a self-destructive spiral, and he talks about it quite honestly in the doc. At some point he moved to Los Angeles, but the films he made there – Until the Academy, too much sun and Hugo Poole – didn’t do much to revive his career. He did occasional acting roles in films such as William Friedkin To live and die in Los Angeles and Paul Thomas Anderson boogie nights.
Family has always been important to him. When his second wife, Laura Ernst, was diagnosed with ALS, he lovingly supported and cared for her. And he stayed close to his son. It’s a part of the film, however, that feels incomplete. There are hints that Downey Sr.’s excesses had a detrimental effect on his son, but one can’t help but wonder if Downey Jr.’s well-publicized drug problems have something to do with the bad influence of his father. This is a subject that deserves to be addressed, but which is too often avoided in the docs.
Eventually, the senior Downey returned to New York, where he always felt more at home. Towards the end of his life, he made a well-received documentary, Rittenhouse Square, and spent time with his family. Some of the film’s best scenes record her tender interactions with her son and grandchildren, first via Zoom during the height of the COVID pandemic, but later with some final and meaningful in-person conversations.
The doc is aptly shot in black and white, to approximate the mood of Downey Sr.’s early films, though of course there are pops of color when his later films are extracted. Friends of the Downey seniors – including Norman Lear, Alan Arkin and even Paul Thomas Anderson – bring vivid memories. Perhaps inevitably, the film heads for a deeply poignant conclusion, but there are enough exuberant, lightly zoned moments to provide a lively, bloody portrait.