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A portrait of the artist – ‘Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed’

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Everyone loves Bob Ross.

The soft-spoken host of the long-running PBS program “The Joy of Painting” was an iconic figure to many, a person who celebrated the utility and democratization of painting. His attitude was simple: If you want to be a painter, paint – and then you’re a painter.

Even now, more than a quarter-century after his too-soon passing in 1995 at the age of 52, Ross is a familiar presence in pop culture. Through merchandising and reruns and references across assorted media, he is well-known – even to those who might not have even been born when his popular show was airing.

But in a new documentary, we learn that while he might have been a beloved icon in life, in death, he became the subject of far more contention.

The film – “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” – is currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by Joshua Rofé, the film looks at the life and times of Ross, documenting his unconventional rise to fame and the people who accompanied him on that rise. And for the first hour, that’s what we get – a very human portrait of a man who is both decent and flawed – but as we go, it becomes clear that something isn’t quite right.

Indeed, when we get to the latter part of the documentary, where Ross’s very legacy – and to whom that legacy rightly belongs – becomes controversial in its own right, well … things get complicated. And one thing is for certain – the chicanery and manipulation that went on behind the scenes was neither happy nor an accident.

“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” spends the first hour or so of its surprisingly brisk 92 minutes delving into who the man was. Ross was notoriously tight-lipped about himself, so it’s interesting to gain access to so much of his early life. We learn about his time in the Air Force, about the dissolution of his first marriage and the strength of his second. We’re shown his early days as a painter, as well as the early glimpses of the unexpected phenomenon that he would become.

Among the many charming moments in this stretch of the film is an exchange with Sally Schenk, who directed the majority of episodes of “The Joy of Painting.” In essence, she says that the man we saw on TV is the man he was (though in real life, he apparently had a propensity for telling jokes that Shenck referred to as “ornery” and I would give anything to hear Bob Ross tell an ornery joke, whatever the heck that means).

But we also get a look at the business side of the enterprise. Specifically, we’re introduced to Annette and Walt Kowalski, a married couple who hitched their wagon to Ross early on and contributed significantly to the growth and monetization of the brand. There’s plenty of speculation regarding the conflicts Ross had with the Kowalskis along the way, as well as an implication that there was possibly an affair in the mix as well.

And after Ross’s passing, it certainly seems as though some unscrupulous acts were undertaken in an effort to maintain control of the Bob Ross name – control that, by all accounts, Ross intended to be held by his son Steve.

Steve Ross is the central figure in this documentary – he’s the one closest to Bob and the one we see on screen the most. His relationship with his father was a complex one, to say the least. Bob Ross brought Steve – a talented painter in his own right – onto his show as a guest on many occasions; all indications were that Bob hoped that Steve could take over “The Joy of Painting” and its related enterprises after he was gone.

Alas, it didn’t go that way.

One of the remarkable things about “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” is how thorough a portrait it manages to paint despite having relatively limited access. According to the filmmakers, over a dozen people who knew Ross and who had initially agreed to be interviewed subsequently passed; every one of them stated a fear of being dragged into court by the notoriously litigious Kowalskis as their rationale for bailing.

That didn’t stop Steve Ross, though. Nor did it stop longtime friends Dana Jester and John Thamm. These men remain furious over the mistreatment and misappropriation of the Bob Ross legacy by people who they believe to have gained control over that legacy through questionable means. And so they speak their truths – it remains to be seen if they’ll be rewarded with a lawsuit for their trouble.

(The Kowalskis initially declined to be involved in the project, though they have subsequently claimed that they weren’t given the proper opportunity to do so. Other than some archival footage, they don’t appear in the film.)

So how to capture the more shadowy aspects of this story within the framework of a fairly standard interviews-and-archives documentary format? In a truly inspired aesthetic choice, Rofé opts to represent the behind-the-scenes activity of the Kowalskis though … paintings. Paintings that deliberately evoke the style and sensibility of one Bob Ross. It’s a sharp and concise way to capture the sinister undertones of that very real connection.

The gentle nature and one-size-fits-all artistic attitude of Bob Ross pushed him into the zeitgeist. Nostalgia and marketing have helped maintain his pop culture relevance. “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” is the story of a passionate man who shared his gifts with the world, hoping only to help them develop gifts of their own. He wasn’t perfect and made his share of mistakes, but by all accounts, he was a fundamentally decent human being – unlike those who would exploit him for their own gain. A quick, quality film – Bob Ross wouldn’t have had it any other way.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 02 September 2021 13:03


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