Bob Ross is known for his sweet, calming voice, his voluminous hair, and, of course, landscape painting done just shy of thirty-odd minutes.
In recent years, Ross has become something else. His comforting demeanour and the grainy kitsch of his show stand in such perfect contrast with everything we have to do. It's completely underproduced. There's a bracing simplicity to everything, both in his paintings and the setup of his show. Yet, beneath all of this, there was complexity.
Netflix's latest documentary, 'Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed' lifts the curtain on the softly-spoken painter's private life. Mercifully, Ross was every bit as unproblematic, joyful, and kindhearted as he was on screen as he was off-screen. The way in which his contemporaries and his own son speak about him is as you'd expect. He was a kind man who loved nature, was open to all, and truly believed in the healing power of creativity in all of its forms. When you watch these parts of the documentary, it's not hard to understand how Bob Ross became this quiet phenomenon, and why his popularity has endured to this day. His screen presence is a gentle balm, a comfort blanket, and his serene landscapes suggest an inner peace and tranquillity.
As we learn in the documentary, this was not always so. Ross' career took off when he linked up with a married couple, the Kowalskis, who are presented in the documentary as initially well-meaning but eventually unscrupulous people who worked to monetise every possible aspect of Bob Ross' public persona, from a line of painting products to merchandise and even allegedly forging his artwork and selling it as genuine. Steve Ross, Bob's son, lays out the relationship between his father and the Kowalskis, the intermingling of their lives, and ultimately how they - not Bob's own son - came to become the guardians of his legacy and, more pointedly, the profiteers of it.
The documentary, to be fair, acknowledges that they have an incomplete picture on their hands. Many people who were supposed to be interviewed pulled out of the documentary for fear of legal retaliation by the Kowalskis and Bob Ross Inc., and even some of the interviews themselves are furtive and sketchy. When Steve and others explain the story of how they came to wrap their hands around Bob Ross' legacy, it's hard not to be appalled and outraged by it. More than that, each of the interviewees point out again and again that money was the last motivation for Bob Ross. Bob Ross Inc., meanwhile, have claimed that the movie was "inaccurate and heavily slanted", and in an interview with Vanity Fair, claimed that had the production "communicated with openness in their correspondence, Bob Ross Inc. could have provided valuable information and context in an attempt to achieve a more balanced and informed film."
There's no doubt that the filmmakers were leaning on the inferred innocence of Bob Ross, and clearly pitching the Kowalskis as the villains, with Steve Ross as the aggrieved son who wants to protect his father's legacy. It's even in the title. Yet, when it's this black and white of a story, it's hard not to look for the grey areas and the shadows of it all, and wonder why they're left out. It seems clear that there was some truly dodgy stuff going on, and that Bob Ross himself was perhaps naive about certain matters relating to the business surrounding him, and that the Kowalskis were exploitative of that fact.
For a painter who seemed to be in perfect harmony with the world around him, it's hard to believe that such discord existed beneath the placid waters. Maybe that's why 'Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed' feels incomplete - that we can't reconcile the persona and the man.