Bob Ross’s hair was a thing of beauty. When he appeared on “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee,” Regis Philbin teased him about his Afro, which Ross sweetly admitted might be more nurtured than nature. And photos of Ross as a teenager and then as a young airman rocking a pompadour make clear he always liked a good ’do. This is among the cheerier scenes in the director Joshua Rofé’s “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed,” a documentary less about Ross’s life than about what happened to his brand in the later years and after his death. Annette and Walt Kowalski, who were Ross’s business partners, are not painted in a flattering light. (The couple declined to participate in the film.)
Ross’s television show, “The Joy of Painting,” ran from 1983 to 1994. And the title nods to the way Ross coached students and then an exponentially growing audience to treat a mistake as a “happy accident.” Yet, as much as happy was Ross’s touchstone word, grief permeates the film. Ross died of lymphoma in 1995. He was 52. His only child, Steven, and friends and fellow artists John Thamm and Dana Jester carry the heft of the storytelling here.
If we are to trust the film — and this is not an unreasonable concern given that it treads on disputes over the estate — then heartache laid the foundation of Ross’s relationship with the Kowalskis. Annette Kowalski had recently lost her son when she took a course with Ross in 1982. A still deeper sorrow infuses the film. “I’ve wanted to get this story out for all these years,” Steven Ross says early on. Later he states, “What they did was shameful, and people should know that.”
From the outset, the documentary nudges us toward the shadows with a twinkling then foreboding score. Illustrations with the texture of a paint-by-numbers kit underline the darker themes of Steven Ross’s recollections. The film’s depiction of what the Kowalskis did to own Ross’s name when he became ill is ugly, yet unsurprising given that the parties were in the midst of a legal dispute.
Toward the end, the director pulls out of the moral tailspin by introducing folks touched by Ross. These testimonials are welcome but they underscore that the other side of this saga is sorely missing. The melancholy result is that the painter with the spectacularly lulling voice, the hallmark ’fro and the liberating kindness remains a mystery; not the brand that’s made millions but the guy who touched millions.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. Watch on Netflix.