Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A decent painter betrayed by his greedy partners

As far as I can see from Netflix documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed”, which was released a few days ago, Bob Ross was not only a decent painter but also a good man to admire. He simply wanted to share the joy of painting with many others out there in addition to encouraging them a lot, and that is the main reason why it is really disheartening to see how his wholesome image and legacy have been ruined and tarnished by his greedy business partners since his untimely death.

Mainly through his son Steve Ross and several friends/colleagues who knew Ross well, the early part of the documentary shows and tells us a bit about Ross’ early years. While he served in the US Air Force in Alaska during the 1960s, Ross actively pursued his interest toward painting, and his son and his first wife reminisce about how much he was devoted to painting whenever he was not working. Around the time when he was finishing one painting, his mind was already focused on whatever he was going to paint next, and he eventually came to pursue his personal passion more after leaving the US Air Force several years later.

During the 1970s, Ross met a TV painting instructor named William Alexander, and, as his mentor, Alexander impressed Ross a lot for how quickly he finished one painting during each 30-minute episode of his TV show. As often appearing along with Alexander on TV, Ross came to master that quick painting method, and then, what do you know, he soon stepped into the league of numerous TV painting instructors including not only Alexander but also Cathwren and Gary Jenkins, who were already famous for teaching how to draw flowers around that time.

When Ross worked with his accidental business partners Annette and Walter Kowalski at the beginning, everything was quite small and modest to say the least, but then it did not take much for all of them to realize that they had something quite special in their hands. Although he was rather clumsy during the shooting of the first several episodes of his TV show, Ross soon got more accustomed to how to present his painting process in front the camera, and his warm natural charisma, which was mainly represented by his tranquil face and amusing Afro hairdo, shined more along with that. As he went through one season after another, he became more and more famous in public, and he ended up doing no less than 30 seasons until his death.

According to his son and his colleagues, Ross was not so different from his TV persona like, say, Mr. Rogers, and they all fondly remember how he used to make them feel good with his positive influences. Although Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins were basically a competitor to him in their field, Ross did not hesitate to recommend them at times during his TV show, and he and they remained to be good friends till his death. In case of his son, Ross did not mind encouraging and supporting him on TV, and his son, who became a painting instructor just like his father, still appreciates his father’s sincere help a lot.

However, unfortunately, there came a trouble in Ross’ life and career. As time went by, Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski, who later established Bob Ross Incorporated (BRI), attempted to gain more control over Ross and his copyrights, and Ross was certainly not pleased about this at all. His second wife stood by him as protecting him from this avaricious couple as another business partner of his, but then she died early due to her terminal illness, and Ross was further devastated when he was notified that he would also soon die not long after that.

Nevertheless, Ross kept trying to work as before while not revealing his impending death to the public, and he also continued to defend his legacy from Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski even though his body got more fragile day by day. Around the time of his eventual death in 1995, he only weighed around 38 kg (around 84 pounds), and his son tells us how it was painful for him to see his father gradually drained of his usual positive spirit.

While Ross defended his legacy till his death, Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski did not stop at all in their aggressive pursuit of the full control over Ross’ legacy, and the second half of the documentary focuses on how nasty and greedy they and their company have been during last 26 years. Besides damaging the lives and careers of several people close to Ross just for more business profit and control, they have also vulgarized what was so caringly established by Ross, and that will surely make your eyes roll for good reasons.

Ross’ son surely tried to fight against this greedy couple, but, alas, it turned out that there was really nothing he could do for stopping them, and they remain the one who has power and money. As a matter of fact, no less than 12 people associated with Ross or BRI declined to be interviewed for the documentary because they all feared for the possibility of getting sued by Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski also declined to be interviewed, and their company is already working on protecting their business interest from whatever will be resulted by the Netflix release of the documentary.

On the whole, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” illuminates its human subject’s legacy while revealing a lot about the ongoing injustice inflicted on it. Director Joshua Rofé did a competent job of juggling interview and archival footage clips, and I also like how he gives the documentary some nice artistic touch via a number of paintings emulating Ross’ painting style, which function as our window to those past moments remembered by the interviewees in the documentary. In my humble opinion, Ross and his legacy surely deserve better, and I can only hope that there will be the happy ending for them someday.

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