He died in 1995, but there’s plenty of evidence that PBS painting show star Bob Ross is as popular as ever. For starters, the reruns of the 30 series of “Joy of Painting” that he did for the network are still on the air here and in other countries around the world.
Ross, of the calming voice, upbeat demeanor and fluid facility with a brush, was a pop culture icon in his day, and lives on not just in those reruns, but in painting supplies and brushes that bear his name, and in Internet memes, where his gentle “Mister Rogers with an Easel” persona is sent up, almost always in the spirit of good fun.
But as its title implies, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed” implies, all is not well in Rossworld. All that money he’s generating after his death is going to some seriously unscrupulous business partners. An artist who preached art as therapy, renewal and a means of changing your sense of self-worth is being bled dry, post mortem, by some Jamie Spears/Col. Parker/Jeff Zuckerberg-level villains.
Director Joshua Rofé, who has Lorena Bobbit and Sasquatch documentaries under his belt, gives us a lovely “origin story,” and tracks the laid-back Ross, an affirmation-oriented teacher “who was never in it for the money” as he became famous enough to teach Regis Philbin the “Joy of Painting” on live TV. Then Rofé introduces the hissable villains who bought in, took over and exploited Ross and the family name and continue to do that to this very day.
Born in Daytona Beach and raised in Orlando, Ross was in the Air Force in Alaska when he and his first wife started a business of painting wilderness landscapes on gold miner’s pans. Eventually, he spied early PBS painting teacher William Alexander, the first guy to manage that “wet on wet” or “ala prima” finished painting in half an hour trick.
Ross befriended the accented, manic Alexander, became an acolyte and teacher of workshops on Alexander’s behalf. And when the time came for Alexander to pass the baton on to a younger TV host, Ross took over and positioned himself as a quieter, more calming and some said “seductive” version of a painting teacher.
Art critics and art historians weigh in, placing Ross’s work within the history of painting, not fluffing his talent but making a point to not dismiss him, either. His value as a popularizer of painting and an inspiration to others emphasized, again and again.
But you never had to paint along with Bob Ross to get something out of his show. He could be downright hypnotic, burbling about “fluffy clouds” and embracing the “happy accidents” he’d make with a brush, painting knife or errant drop of paint. Like Fred Rogers, his brand of mellow could be a balm in a harrowing, stressful world.
Members of the production crew of the homey (their studios were literally in a house) Muncie, Indiana PBS affiliate that launched “Joy of Painting” speak adoringly of Ross, who comes off as a slightly edgier and hipper Mister Rogers, a permed-hair, shirt-open “sex symbol” to middle aged women who longed to learn to paint from a guy with a bedroom voice.
Rofé harshes our mellow when he introduces Annette Kowalski and Walt Kowalski, who come off as controlling, paranoid and greedy manipulators who helped boost Bob into fame, and poured all their energy into ensuring that his legacy, archives and his very name belonged to them and not his family.
They are described as people who “love to sue,” and the film goes to some pains to show those who choose to talk about them relating stories of the many too scared to do so on camera. Bob’s son, Steve Ross, trained to take over his teaching, if not his TV series, disciple and friend Dana Jester and an Alaskan teacher who had Bob in class all relate tales of the underhandedness, avarice and callousness of the Kowalskis, who as of this writing are the poster children for “Evil Triumphs.”
This movie cries out for a “to crowdfund a lawsuit against the Kowalskis, visit http://www.suethosebastards.com” closing credit.
That isn’t the case, of course. Not yet.
But as we follow the back and forth of a newly-empowered Britney Spears in battling her father, any documentary that takes up the cause of an embattled public figure, even one long dead, at least leaves us with hope.
Rating: TV-14, profanity
Cast: Bob Ross, Steve Ross, Cathwren Jenkins, Sally Schenk, Dana Jester, Annette Kowalski and John Thamm.
Credits: Directed by Joshua Rofé. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:32