In the films he directed in the late 1960s, Robert Downey Sr. credited himself as “A Prince.” It was a private joke typical of the antic artist. As he told Johnny Carson (he was one of a very few “underground filmmakers” to get booked on “The Tonight Show”), “I’m too young to be a king.”
The man was not, as it happens, consistently courtly. But his son, Robert Downey Jr., the movie star, notes in this picture that his dad was “a very charismatic guy who had different ideas and curiosity.”
“Sr.,” a documentary directed by Chris Smith, with Robert Downey Jr. providing a strong production hand and onscreen presence, highlights that charisma and curiosity even when it shows the older Downey in decline. (He died in 2021 of complications from Parkinson’s.) The focus here is divided between the father-son relationship and the father’s groundbreaking work. The elder Downey’s absurdist films, including the furious satire “Putney Swope,” are the connective tissue between underground movies and the Marx Brothers.
Downey was a permissive parent in bohemian ’60s mode, and also a cocaine enthusiast in his post-“Swope” years. Downey Jr. had his own harrowing period of addiction that included a stint in prison. “We would be remiss not to discuss its effect on me,” Downey Jr. says of his dad’s cocaine years. “I would sure love to miss that discussion,” Downey Sr. replies dryly. But the details of how the father cleaned up, became a caregiver to his terminally ill second wife and tried to help his son are terribly moving.
Downey Jr. speaks of this movie as an exercise in trying to understand his father. But by the end of this short but satisfying exploration, the viewer realizes that he gets him better than he even knows. “He is connected to some sort of creative deity,” Downey Jr. says. It’s an apt summation.
Rated R for language, themes, raw humor. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on Netflix.