Released: 25th August
Seen: 6th September
Between 1983 and 1994, Bob Ross delighted viewers with his charming little show The Joy Of Painting. For over 400 episodes, Bob and a series of guest stars would talk the viewer through methods of painting landscapes and he became a cultural phenomenon. Even now, years after his passing, the image of the cheerful man with the giant afro and the well-used painter’s palette is iconic. Hell, it’s well known enough that a recent episode of Drag Race had someone recreate the look with a wig made of squirrels (and sure, they were in the bottom that week but you still knew who they were). Well, turns out the story of Bob Ross’ legacy wasn’t exactly as happy as the little trees that were in many of his paintings.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed tells two separate stories. The first is about the rise of Bob Ross as a cultural icon, how his show went from strength to strength and ultimately his tragic passing. The other story is that of the Kowalskis, a couple who started as producers of Bob Ross’ show and ended up owning his image and becoming so infamous for their lawsuits against anyone who even looked sideways at the Bob Ross imagery that Bob’s own son was unable to paint in public for years. Throughout the documentary we go back and forth between these stories, showing there was a lot more going on with Bob Ross than the kind image that turned him into a worldwide icon.
The film itself follows a standard talking-head documentary format, using a combination of archival footage and interviews between several people who knew Bob (notably not talking to the Kowalskis) in order to tell the story of his life. The only real bits of stylism are some still images that appear to have had a filter put over them to make them look like a painting, an effect that works well when shown briefly but they hold on some of those images so long that you end up really being able to tell. Still, it ends up creating a thematically appropriate method of visual storytelling that makes the recreation of certain events interesting enough to look at.
From the very beginning we’re told, pretty explicitly, that over a dozen people who the filmmakers wanted to interview wouldn’t take part because of fear of being sued by the Kowalskis and you can almost feel that there is a certain sense of everyone holding back. To an extent, this is understandable as no one involved wants to be sued but it means that some key details of the issues with the Kowalskis feel like they’re missing. We get a very general idea of the problems that Bob’s son Steve has with them, getting more specific right towards the end of the film when discussing the final week of Bob’s life, but it just feels like there’s more here that we’re not hearing.
When the film is just Steve talking about his father, that’s when this documentary truly shines. That raw emotional connection is so powerful and pure that it’s compelling, far more than anyone else in the film… which is fortunate because pretty much everyone else only gets a few sporadic moments here and there. In some cases, this is a good thing, like when Steve talks about how he and his dad bonded then all you wanna hear is Steve’s perspective but then there are moments where they have some art historians explain a certain technique that Bob used… those historians only turn up once.
This is emblematic of the big issue that this documentary has, namely that it’s nowhere near long enough. The elements of the story are so varied and massive and the combination of an overview of Bob’s life and a discussion of this Kowalski controversy means that we really don’t get to dive into that much detail of either. Honestly, this movie feels like it would be better off as some kind of docuseries, something this director has done before with his docuseries about Lorena Bobbit. The film almost seems to be begging for that kind of treatment, with tantalising snippets of information that almost beg for further discussion but we never get any because the film has to leap between so much fascinating information that it can’t get too deep into any of it.
The kicker to all this is that, as a whole, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed is still a good documentary that has a lot of genuinely interesting moments and a fascinating story worthy of being told. It falters when it comes to telling its story by being so brief that the details of this fascinating man’s life and the controversy surrounding his producers end up falling by the wayside. It’s still worth a look if you want to know a little more about the man with the paintbrush and the giant afro, but you’ll undoubtedly finish the film wishing there was more that they could tell you. I guess that length issue is not something we can consider a happy accident.