The new Netflix documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed” will both bring a broad smile to your face and make your blood boil. Director Joshua Rofé tells the story of this soft-spoken television artist, from his humble beginnings as a young oil painter to the disgraceful mass-marketing of his name and likeness following his death in 1995.
Bob Ross was a mind-blowing talent and so many of us remember him from his PBS television show “The Joy of Painting” which ran from 1983 till 1994. During each half-hour episode Ross would use his wet-on-wet technique to paint a gallery-quality landscape. He painted in real-time and with no edits. And as he painted, his calming causal instruction made watching his show almost therapeutic.
Rofé spends most of his time speaking to those who knew Ross best, namely his son Steve and two of his closest friends and colleagues. Together they give us a picture of a man who loved life, who loved nature and of course who loved to paint. We also hear from art historians and biographers, as well as other television artists who were both friends and inspirations for what Ross would eventually do.
But the film also explores the heartbreaking (and infuriating) side of the Bob Ross story. It tells us about Annette and Walt Kowalski who saw money in Ross. They were instrumental in launching “The Joy of Painting” and building it into such a success.
But they also deviously and shamelessly took control of the Bob Ross name after his death. Against the late artist’s wishes, the Kowalskis stripped Ross’ son Steve of the rights to use his own father’s name. In the meantime, the have turned Bob Ross’ likeness into a multi-million dollar a year corporation. It explains why Bob Ross can now be found on t-shirts, coffee mugs, jigsaw puzzles, plush dolls, bobbleheads and so on.
To no surprise the Kowalskis chose not to appear in the documentary and Rofé points out that over a dozen people backed out of being interviewed for fear of legal action from the Kowalskis. But some of the film’s most damning allegations comes from those unafraid to appear; those who claim to have experienced the Kowalski’s duplicity first-hand. From selling forged Bob Ross painting to using their power to squeeze out competing artists. It’s not a flattering portrait of the Kowalski family.
“I paint because I can paint the world I want.” You can’t imagine things have ended the way Bob Ross wanted. Still, for most of us Bob Ross will be indelibly etched in our hearts as the quiet unassuming TV painter with a soft soothing voice and funny perm. We’ll always remember his warm smile, welcoming presence and jaw-dropping artistic gifts. Just don’t be surprised if we skip out on the Bob Ross merchandise after watching this film. That DOES sound like something the late artist would want. “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed” is now streaming on Netflix.