A rainy day transforms San Francisco into a mere picture of a city. Its streets, quieter and quainter than those lining larger metropolises, become vacant. Its dainty Victorian architecture, already vibrant and kaleidoscopic, appears brighter against the background of a barren gray sky. For its imaginative inhabitants, San Francisco’s drizzling atmosphere resembles a wondrous childlike fantasy — a relevant creative vision in the context of director Chris Smith’s new biographical documentary about the late Robert Downey Sr. eponymously named “Sr.”
The exploratory documentary takes a cut-and-paste approach to storytelling. Inviting viewers into the mind of its quirky auteurist subject, snippets from the seasoned filmmaker’s sprawling cinematic oeuvre are intertwined with intimate snapshots of his familial dwellings. The audience witnesses scenes from a number of Sr.’s directorial endeavors, including the oedipal “Chafed Elbows,” a 1966 parodical comedy about a lustful welfare recipient who marries his mother, and the experimental “Pound” — a 1970 dark comedy where human actors play a group of rag-tag dogs waiting to be euthanized at the pound.
Perhaps the strangest film among all referenced is the plotless, surrealist frenzy titled “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight.” With the goal of encouraging half the theater to “walk out” by the end of its duration, this piece of pure ‘70s psychedelia supposedly pushes the boundaries of cinematic convention. “The plot is the saxophone,” Sr. reveals with an air of tongue-in-cheek mystery, expressing that the only through-line in the entire film is its never-ending saxophone riff.
Outside of Sr.’s outlandish narration, the documentary manages to give voice to a wide variety of perspectives on the filmmaker’s legacy. Like Sr.’s dynamic career, these perspectives are seldom static, hailing from an array of sources including vulnerable one-on-one interviews, charming raw footage and introspective B-roll from his son — actor and producer Robert Downey Jr. Viewers learn about Sr. from Paul Thomas Anderson, Alan Arkin and Norman Lear among others. It’s an eclectic blend of modalities, one that traverses Sr.’s past and present without losing cohesion.
However, Smith’s most inventive narrative technique comes not from his ability to blend primary and secondary sources, but his insistence on giving audiences a first-hand glimpse into Sr.’s creative genius. Throughout the film, the documentary’s journalistic structure is juxtaposed with “Sr.’s cut” — an unconventional, original modification of the story told through Sr.’s eyes. Viewers watch as the filmmaker dictates his ideas to a hands-on editor, who masterfully brings Sr.’s eccentric vision to life. Through this craftsmanship, spectators are able to conceive a near-totalizing understanding of the rebellious visionary’s inner and outer worlds.
Enhancing the film’s authenticity, Robert Downey Jr., along with director Chris Smith and other key filmmakers, made special appearances at the San Francisco screening and participated in an uplifting post-doc panel.
“I’ve done this at a lot of senior venues, but this one is by far the seniorest,” Downey Jr. affably joked, referencing the theater’s antique aesthetic.
Occupying the closing night slot at the San Francisco Film Festival’s “Doc Stories” festival series, “Sr.” was screened in The Castro Theater, an apt name for the antique venue residing in the bleeding heart of San Francisco. Built in 1922, the warm, elegant Gothic building served as a cozy hideaway from its damp surroundings.
But like the gloomy ambiance of the city, the subject matter of “Sr.” is not all sunshine and rainbows. As Sr. suffers a losing battle with Parkinson’s disease, the documentary follows the auteur to his deathbed. As Sr.’s mental acuity declines and the Downey family processes the harsh realities of death, the camera stays rolling. Though certainly not for the faint of heart, this decision to portray loss so candidly makes the film bold, heartbreaking and uplifting all at once.
“He communicated through film until his death,” one panelist remarked, observing Sr.’s unique method of emotional expression. It’s true — thanks to the humble, groundbreaking and enlightening tellings of “Sr,” Robert Downey Sr.’s enigmatic legacy will live on.