WHERE Streaming on Netflix
WHAT IT'S ABOUT The story of the late underground cinema icon Robert Downey Sr. comes to life in a fitting way: a documentary that appears to have been shot and crafted on the fly, but with the exact sort of instinctual filmmaking talent and attention to cultural currents that characterized his most renowned work.
The directing credit on "Sr." goes to Chris Smith, a nonfiction veteran whose credits include "Fyre," "Bad Vegan" and others. But there are really two directors here — the other being the Rockville Centre-raised Downey Sr., who agreed to the movie on the condition that he could simultaneously make his own version of a film about himself.
The result is a fascinating self-portrait.
It chronicles the transgressive counterculture work Downey Sr. specialized in, most prominently illustrated by the 1969 classic "Putney Swope," with its story of what happens when the only Black man on an advertising company's board takes over the business.
But it's also a movie in which a man at the end of his life — Downey Sr. died of complications from Parkinson's disease in 2021 — comes to terms with his greatest and lowest moments, and takes an active role in shaping how he would like to be remembered.
That includes the significant presence of his son, Robert Downey Jr., who has coproduced and spearheaded the movie. He interviews his father on-screen, remembering how it felt to grow up at the center of the New York City avant-garde filmmaking scene and charting the evolution of their relationship.
In that sense, the picture is equally his own journey toward reconciling the good and the bad moments of their lifetime together, while finding his way forward into a new reality.
MY SAY Many documentarians working on biographical projects make the mistake of trying to delve into every possible detail of a subject's life. "Sr." transcends the standard treatment precisely because Smith and the Downeys avoid the trap.
The movie becomes freed up to capture the essence of this person and what made his art so important.
It peels back the fourth wall to show the cinematic mechanism in place: Downey Sr. sets up shots, offers direction to his son, and supervises the editing process for his version of the story when a bay for cutting the picture gets set up in his home.
"Sr." unfolds at an intersection of documentary and fiction that gets rarely acknowledged in either medium, but fundamentally defines each one.
Any ostensibly nonfiction movie has been shaped by a series of decisions, including camera placement and editing choices, that invest elements of artistic choice into a story. At the same time, fiction filmmaking cannot be separated from the interests of the artists behind-the-camera or the larger forces defining society at a particular moment.
Downey Sr. and his son shape and drive this movie to be whatever it might be, focused less on the particulars of every last memory or experience and more on the people they've become and the love they share.
The spontaneity, the blending of artifice and truth, reflects this grander sense of the role of the filmmaker, something transcendent about how we shape our own stories.
BOTTOM LINE This is one of the best movies of the year, unmissable even if you've never seen a Downey Sr. movie.