This new documentary on Netflix about Bob Ross is an illuminating and largely affectionate documentary – its best moments are those in which his son Steven and some of Bob Ross’ friends and colleagues talk about the artist’s life and career (it may actually be a surprise to many that Ross, whose art show “The Joy of Painting” always seems to be airing somewhere in the darkest corners of the cable-channel universe -its been airing again here on the BBC recently- actually died back in 1995). Ross was a charming, charismatic man who was able to make a real connection with audiences quite independent of his (substantial) artistic ability- its a talent as natural as his artistic prowess. The gentle innocence of his television show inevitably reminds one of the American children’s show “Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood” and its presenter Fred Rogers, recently immortalised in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, which featured Tom Hanks in the title role of a guy who like Ross seemed a genuinely ‘good’ person in a world where hero-figures usually falter and let us down. It also reminds me of the likes of Carl Sagan, who was able to connect with layman audiences not usually taken with science documentaries, in just the same way as Ross could enthral viewers usually not in the slightest bit interested in art. Presenters such as these seem natural and the connection with the viewer feels real, without artifice; we are caught up by their passion and share it.
But director Joshua Rofé’s Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, as the title likely suggests, has something of a dark side. Thankfully this is, like Fred Rogers, one hero/inspirational figure who doesn’t let us down with a shadowy real-life tarnished by grubby real-world human weaknesses: its not a film targeted with tearing down the image of Bob Ross. No, that’s left for other people largely left unknown to us until now. So while it is heart-warming learning that Ross seemed a genuinely nice fellow, and seeing Ross’ life story and road to success, the documentary is also quite depressing when it shows what happened following the artists untimely death at the age of just 52. The film alleges that his business partners acted quite legally but in morally dubious ways, ensuring they owned and profited from Ross’ likeness, brand and television show following Ross’ death, subsequently earning millions while Ross’ son apparently earned nothing, all clearly contrary to Ross’ own wishes. Its the dark side of the American Dream writ large and really quite distressing. The film also reveals that many people were afraid to speak on the film for fear of litigation, and its unfortunate (albeit possibly quite telling) that Ross’ business partners Annette and Walt Kowalski declined to appear and defend themselves (so inevitably damned in their absence, you might say).
It all rather leaves a bitter taste in ones mouth. Its a very interesting film, and very pleasant when it describes Ross’ background and family life and his artistic pursuits leading to “The Joy of Painting” and its huge success, but its only likely to leave his fans (of which there are still obviously very many) feeling that a great injustice has occurred, albeit quite legal and above board (oh, justice in America is so very noir). Its unfortunate that something as sweetly innocent and joyous as Ross’ television show, which ran for eleven years and over four hundred episodes, will now always be blighted by the shadow of the story behind it.
I don’t know, maybe its perfectly symptomatic of the American Dream that a nice feel-good story like Bob Ross and his “The Joy of Painting” becomes tarnished by greed and corruption: money the root of all evil, yet again. All I know is that I went to bed feeling angry and frustrated: sometimes the bad guys win.