From Joshua Rofé (Lost for Life), the same director who brought us the four-part docu-series Lorena (executive produced by Jordan Peele, no less), about famed penis-slicer Lorena Bobbitt, comes Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, the only slightly less disturbing documentary about the prolific landscape painter and art teacher Bob Ross. Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” series was syndicated for something like 20 seasons (over about 10 years) on PBS stations across the nation, but was also known around the world. Ross went from celebrity to cultural icon with no real effort on his part but with a great deal of effort on the part of executive producer Annette Kowalski, who, along with her husband, ran Ross’s company and continue to profit from his merchandise to this day—not surprisingly a major bone of contention for Bob’s son Steve Ross who was effectively cut out of his inheritance by the Kowalskis.
The film makes the point to inform us that even when Ross died in 1995, the Kowalskis only told a handful of friends and asked them not to reveal that Bob had passed away for fear of his brand being tainted. But the film isn’t all—as the title implies—betrayal and greed. We’re taken through Ross’s 20-year career in the military, during which he developed his quick painting style so that he could work on his art during the relatively short breaks he’d get on the job. He considered turning his method into television instruction after seeing “The Magic of Oil Painting,” hosted by German painter Bill Alexander, who blew through a single landscape in a little less than 30 minutes. Ross became a guest on the show, and eventually Alexander handed over his brushes to Ross in a ceremony that signaled a transition from a slightly harsher art teacher to the more serene and laid-back style that Ross cultivated during his time as host. He encouraged his TV students by reminding them that there were no mistakes, only happy accidents that could be woven into the painting.
The film pulls back the curtain on Ross to discover that he was more or less the guy we knew from television, which is not to say he didn’t get into it with various people in his life. He clearly found it hard to uncouple himself from the Kowalskis, who helped get the show on its feet and continued to build up his brand with a successful line of art supplies and every type of knickknack you can imagine. There was some intrigue in Bob’s life, such as an accusation of an affair with Annette; there were/are people still afraid to speak negatively about the Kowalskis on the record, for fear (rightfully so) of being sued by them. But there are smaller, more playful questions about whether his afro hair style was natural (it was not), or whether he subtly slipped seductive lingo (“caress with the brush,” “make love to the canvas”) into his painting instructions (he definitely did). As a result of his charm and popularity, women threw themselves at him at personal appearances.
Despite the potential legal ramifications, the documentary does feature some terrific interviews with those who were closest to Ross, including son Steve and some of his earliest supporters and business partners, all of whom reveal a kind and caring man who was too trusting of those who appeared to back his vision of what his series should be. But it’s rough going in the final weeks of his life, as the Kowalskis are pressuring him to sign over his name to them after he dies. They failed in that mission, but had plenty of work-arounds up their sleeves.
If you never watched Bob Ross in his heyday, it’s a bit difficult to comprehend what an immense force he was. First you’d get caught by his voice, and then you’d begin to pay attention to how quickly he was creating something quite lovely. He was like Bruce Lee was to martial arts—no wasted movement. Every turn of the wrist resulted in something significant, and by the time he was done, you barely remember what the canvas looked like when it was empty or halfway done. He made it seem like the image was always there just waiting to be uncovered, and that’s basically how he saw it as well. Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is perhaps an inflammatory title, but it’s also fair. We maybe don’t get to know Ross as much as we would have liked during the course of the movie, but to know know him in any capacity was clearly something special, and because of that, the film succeeds at revealing his flawed but inspiring life.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!