Last year, at the height of the pandemic, entertainment news was besieged by a string of stories about how reruns of Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” were seeing renewed life on streaming. It seemed that, for many, Ross painting “happy clouds” offered a major source of relaxation and familiarity in a world that felt unsafe and frightening. And yet it’s impossible to believe anyone could be that happy, right?
That’s the question at the center of Joshua Rofe’s hazy documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed.” There was no doubt a real man behind the facade of the television-famous painter, but the film often feels like it’s scraping for a scandalous angle simply to make it worthy of Netflix and its big buzz machine. In the opening credits alone, dark clouds are painted on the horizon (pun very much intended) as Ross’ own son, Stephen, implies that his dear old dad hid many secrets.
But those “secrets” aren’t nearly as shocking as the film paints them out to be. And, considering how much of the documentary isn’t actually about that, it feels disingenuous to play up such a thin angle. It’s doubtful many know much about who Bob Ross was outside of his PBS broadcasts, and Rofe carefully details a man who served in the military and spent a great deal of his time in Alaska. But he was drawn to the world of painting, a place where, as he says, he could be in control and create the landscape he (literally) wanted to see. Ross married young and quickly built a family, but the marriage broke down rather speedily, for reasons that never feel fully explained. Ross quickly remarried and things went on from there.
It’s this discussion of Ross’ relationships with women that could be worth exploring if the documentary decided to dig deeper. Stephen Ross never talks about his mother after this initial mention of his parents getting together. Did he have no relationship with her after his parents’ divorce? And if so, why not? Bob Ross’ hasty remarriage to his second wife might imply that the painter had issues with commitment or even infidelity, but it’s never examined, in favor of racing to the more “shocking” parts that Stephen Ross is really irritated over (spoiler: it involves money).
Bob Ross’ two wives sound like fascinating women, especially his second wife Jane, who was with him when he found success. Her slow death to cancer feels like an afterthought in Stephen Ross’ memories, outside of recounting sad stories where she tells the young boy he’s the only one who loved her. Really, the movie spends more time wondering if Ross had an affair with his financial backer, Annette Kowalski, than examining why the painter would do that. Instead of examining its subject, the doc finds it easier to look at the ways others harmed Ross, instead of wondering if Ross might have hurt those he loved.
Ross’ personal life becomes synonymous with his work, as are any and all problems he ever had. Much of the documentary is built around the entanglement of Ross with Walt and Annette Kowalski, the people who would eventually create Bob Ross Industries and who still maintain Ross’ legacy (and the financial profits therein). Here is where anything passing for grit comes in, from Bob Ross’ possible affair with Annette Kowalski for reasons that are never contextualized to claims that Walt Kowalski recorded phone calls due to his past in the CIA. It sounds like the fanciful stylings of a person remembering their childhood memories (at best) to bizarre conspiracy theories (at worst). At times, the voices of other people, like fellow television painters Gary and Kathwren Jenkins, feel included just to promote the so-called scandalous side of the documentary.
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In the grand scheme of rights ownership drama, there’s no doubt that Ross was taken advantage of, but it feels like that’s the only reason this documentary exists. At the film’s end, interviews are conducted with people who believe that Bob Ross changed their life, from a man who was attempting to commit suicide to a woman struggling in the wake of losing a child. These people talk about finding the joy in painting and reiterate why Ross’ legacy is so important. It’s only a shame that these voices appear only in the final five minutes of the movie, playing like a manipulative tactic to show just how horrid the Kowalskis are than anything else.
“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed” wants to be the next “Tiger King,” with decidedly mixed results. Moments discussing Ross’ art techniques and his impact as a painter and a person feel so unique and rich for examination, but they’re all buried under an umbrella of two people who were villains and screwed over people for money. Too often subjects are introduced to craft a narrative of villainy that feels like it’s been shoehorned in from a different documentary entirely. This Bob Ross doc isn’t just messy, it one that paints a mixed portrait that’s hard to decipher.
“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed” starts streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, August 24.