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Bob Ross’ paintings were defined by a rushed and yet ephemeral quality — the wispy shrubs and fluffy clouds, the bold lines representing spindly trees. The paintings were conceived by the TV instructor as projects to be completed in less than 30 minutes and to be calming rather than provocative.
The title of Joshua Rofé’s Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is meant to suggest friction between a public image and the truth, to imply a juicy and possibly salacious story to be revealed in 90 minutes. Instead, it’s much closer to the work of its main subject: a bit hurried, inoffensive and ultimately unsubstantial. It’s loosely informative, rarely revelatory and, despite what the title might lead you to expect, never provocative.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed
Airdate: Wednesday, Aug. 25
Director: Joshua Rofé
Bob Ross hosted PBS’ The Joy of Painting for only 11 years, from 1983 to 1994, but in that time he filmed a whopping 403 lo-fi episodes of whispered wisdom, hastily assembled canvases and, maybe, depending on whether you watched the show for its literal purpose or in a college dorm room after the consumption of illicit substances, artistic instruction. His distinctive look, which included the easiest-going of easygoing smiles and a fluffy Afro that looked like it belonged in a Bob Ross painting, helped make him an icon for the MTV generation and a ubiquitous meme for younger audiences, who have turned him into a symbol with no semiotic meaning at all. Which seems perfectly appropriate, actually.
Steered by Ross’ son, Steven Rofé, takes us through the barest bones of Ross’ biography, including limited details on his time in the Air Force and his formative years in Alaska, leading to a passion for painting and a connection to artist Bill Alexander. Alexander’s so-called wet-on-wet style and his TV series The Magic of Oil Painting gave Ross his aesthetic and a structure for his future TV series — and, with the help of Walt and Annette Kowalski (she was a technical assistant and executive producer on the show), he became a beloved figure before he died in 1995 at the age of 52.
It’s a simple story with ample room for exploration or discovery. Rofé does only a little of either. There’s a lot of footage from The Joy of Painting, a lot of footage from various talk show appearances, some amusing archival photos of pre-Afro Ross and the occasional animated reenactment in a perplexing style that in no way evokes Ross’ style or the style of the rest of the documentary.
A problem may be that Ross wasn’t a hugely interesting guy, which I don’t mean necessarily as an insult. Lots of stars don’t have deep, dark secrets and for lots of public figures there’s little or no friction between their public image and the truth. The documentary has a limited stable of talking heads — more on that in a second — and their insights end up being minimal. Ross was maybe a little flirtatious with some of his co-workers, it seems, but not in any way that’s implied to be unseemly. A colleague says that he could be a little ornery at times, and one or two people speak about his love of fast cars, but neither fact is even slightly consequential. It’s repeated several times that what you expected from Bob Ross based on his persona was what you got from Bob Ross as a man, which is great news if you wanted to be friends with Bob Ross, less great news if you want to make a compelling documentary about him.
The most outrageous truth unearthed about Ross’ personal life is that his Afro was a perm. I know. You’re stunned, right? But when you have Steve Ross talking about how his dad “loved messing around with different hairstyles,” it feels to me like there’s an actual conversation to be had about why this was the look that ended up becoming iconic and what Ross felt about being locked into a single style. That’s one of many things you’re bound to wish the doc had delved into more.
Early on, Rofé trots out a couple of art professors and historians, and I was briefly excited that the documentary might take Bob Ross seriously as an artist, not exactly to elevate him but to put his success in context. Instead, other than a hasty overview of the wet-on-wet process and its history, the experts vanish, either a missed opportunity or a tacit acknowledgment that there just isn’t much to say about Bob Ross as an artist.
Where Rofé apparently thinks there’s a lot to discuss is the matter of what happened to Ross at the end of his life and to his work after his death — presumably that’s where the “betrayal” and “greed” come in. It all relates to the Kowalskis and to the timeless clash between a figure interested primarily in art and associates interested primarily in commerce. That timelessness makes Ross’ story relatable, and also explains why it’s never close to astonishing. The percentage of deceased famous figures whose estates become embroiled in name/likeness disputes is high enough that if there’s anything notable about what happened with Ross, it should have been explained better.
The director is stymied because the hero of his documentary is deceased and the villains are apparently elusive and litigious. Nobody in the Kowalski family appears on camera, and it’s repeated several times that they’re powerful enough to scare people away from appearing. It’s hard to tell if Rofé is tiptoeing around allegations because he too wants to avoid being sued or if he’s leveling only amorphous charges because he can’t get anybody to go on the record with anything serious. There’s a loose allegation of an affair! A random European guy pops up for one quote to basically charge the Kowalskis with forgery! But since it’s bordering on impossible to find Bob Ross originals or Bob Ross “originals” in the marketplace, nobody is able to explain the purpose behind the fraud. Nobody here is able to explain a lot of things, exposing the film’s lack of legal experts and its wasted use of art experts.
It’s a footnote that Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is executive produced by Melissa McCarthy, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which deals with similar issues of fraud and artistic appropriation with far more detail and empathy.
With Amazon’s Lorena and Hulu’s Sasquatch, Rofé is coming off a pair of limited series that tackled sensationalistic stories with an admirable lack of sensationalism, but weren’t necessarily sure what to replace the sensationalism with. The goal here feels almost like the opposite: an attempt to add excitement and sensationalism to a story that most viewers will expect to be quite staid. Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed just can’t find the necessary hook. The look at Ross’ art is surface-deep, and the “betrayal” and “greed” come across as unremarkable examples of such things.
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