Netflix jumps on the EXPLODING trend of documentaries about old PBS TV shows with Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed, director Joshua Rofe’s fuzzy portrait of the iconic painter whose soothing voice inspired many a meditative state during his 11 years as host of The Joy of Painting. Fuzzy, because the footage is all 30-plus years old, and the film sometimes feels more impressionistic than finely detailed — and because his signature afro is so damn luxurious. Bob (I think we can just call him “Bob”; he seems like everyone’s friend, doesn’t he?) always said that anyone can paint landscapes, but can anyone make a documentary about Bob? Let’s find out.
‘BOB ROSS: HAPPY ACCIDENTS, BETRAYAL AND GREED’: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: You may be surprised to learn that a documentary profile of the mellowest dude in the history of television has actual villains in it. Walt and Annette Kowalski were Bob’s longtime business partners, the people who helped get him on the road teaching painting courses in the early ’80s, and soon thereafter on the PBS airwaves, where he started and finished lovely landscapes in a mere 26 minutes. The Kowalskis now have a firm grip on the Bob Ross legacy via Bob Ross Inc., the company that markets the mountains of merch with Bob’s smiling, ’fro-topped face on it, leaving Bob’s son Steve, the intended heir to the enterprise, angry and frustrated — and the film without enough interviewees, as nobody from Bob Ross Inc. agreed to participate in the film, and many others in Bob’s circle declined for fear of being sued by the Kowalskis. They sound like lovely people.
So the film skews heavy toward Steve’s point-of-view as it recounts Bob’s life: An early career in the Air Force, for which he was stationed in Alaska, where he developed his deep appreciation of rugged natural landscapes; his marriage to Steve’s mother, Vicky; his interest in painting, inspired by Bill Alexander’s PBS show The Magic of Oil Painting, leading him to a change in livelihoods; Steve saying “He was always a hair guy,” a comment accompanied by what is best described as a bouffant montage.
When Bob met the Kowalskis, it was a turning point. They helped him manage and finance his career, allowing him to focus on the tasty stuff: His charisma, enthusiasm, you-can-do-it encouraging message and, especially, that sexy-ass voice, which all combined to make him a phenomenon of the type that put him in the national spotlight. Cue clips of his appearances on Donahue and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, which are surely included in the film as a sly joke because they feature VERY LOUD and grating hosts who are the polar opposite of gentle Bob, who was like a footrub and a gentle warm soak in the tub after a hard day.
And maybe more than that — there’s a segment of the documentary detailing how he very much intended to use the vocal tones of a gentle lover, apparently because he fooled around a lot. Steve and a few of the smattering of Bob’s friends go beyond insinuating that he had an affair with Annette Kowalski, nearly derailing his marriage to his second wife, Jane. Juicy! A producer calls him “a flirt”; cue a shot of him in some tight Jordache jeans, and yes, that’s the handle of an afro pick sticking out of his back pocket. The man also liked fast American cars and a hard belt of liquor. Is anyone surprised by this? The mofo was smooove. He died young in 1995, at age 52, of lymphoma, keeping the lingering illness a secret, because he was a very private man, making this doc a bit of a how-about-that expose. And to hear Steve and others tell it, the Kowalskis subsequently feared losing their cash cow, and deployed sneaky underhanded means, often involving lawyers, to keep the millions rolling in during the last quarter-century. Does anybody in their right mind believe Bob would have wanted that?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Triple feature: Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed with Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. Next, I think we need a dishy expose about that little shit Daniel Tiger.
Performance Worth Watching: See “Memorable Dialogue,” below.
Memorable Dialogue: “Grab it, lift it, fluff it, tease it, pull it. There. Make love to it here. Very gentle. Very gentle.” — Bob. Bob. BOB! You’re on public television, Bob.
Sex and Skin: Only innuendo.
Our Take: After watching Bob Ross: Etc., one should play the is-the-Wikipedia-entry-more-revealing-than-the-documentary game, because is it me or is Bob missing part of a finger and it’s never even mentioned in the movie? (Wikipedia says it was the result of a carpentry accident when he was young.) In the doc, we get one of Bob’s longtime friends speculating if inhaling paint thinner fumes for many years played a part in his contracting lymphoma, qualifying the statement with “But I’m not a doctor.” (Wikipedia tells us that Bob smoked a lot of cigarettes.) You get the point.
Minor quibbles, maybe, but the clean presentation of details frequently separates good docs from mediocre ones. Wikipedia also says “The origins of the TV show The Joy of Painting are unclear,” a statement the documentary renders false — but not by itself, as a recent in-depth piece by the Daily Beast did the same. The Beast piece also gives us a more complete portrait of Bob as a businessman who could be controlling and demanding, but that truth might not jibe with what works best for Rofe, namely, the film’s emphasis on Steve Ross’ voice, which guides the narrative and helps the film find its sentimental heart: The guy was a painter like his father, and Bob praised Steve’s talent to the hills. He lost his father to a heartbreaking disease. And now he’s lost the very visage of his father to a litigious corporation run by ex-friends who rake in tons of dough selling Bob Ross T-shirts, Chia Pets and other kitschy crap.
The emotional content here props up a messy third act, which introduces a number of interesting developments — among them how Steve and his father didn’t speak to each other for a few years, and how Bob’s brother, barely mentioned prior, was executor of his estate — in a hurry to further demonize the Kowalskis, who almost certainly deserve it, and their silence speaks volumes. Rofe apparently would have liked to make an all-encompassing biodoc about Bob Ross, but one senses the limitations forced upon the project; subtitles about key players in the story not participating bump up with enough frequency, they seem like an additional character. The film tends to feel like a Bob Ross painting at about the 20-minute mark — incomplete, but still worth looking at.
Our Call: Despite its flaws, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed stirs up reasonable interest about the man and his ’fro. STREAM IT.
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