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Review: ‘Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed’ reveals a complex legacy

An adult son with his arm around his father in the documentary "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed."
Steve Ross, left, and his artist father in the documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.”
(Netflix)

Painter and television personality Bob Ross held his palette and brush as a troubadour does his guitar. The vibe he gave off on his signature PBS show, “The Joy of Painting,” was no different from someone with a song of peace in their heart: The instructor with the halo-like Afro and nimble technique soothed millions with his message of healing freedom by way of trees and mountains on a canvas, all completed in half an hour. Whether he sparked in viewers a love of landscape painting or lulled them to sleep with his mellifluous voice — sedative powers Ross apparently got a kick out of — this gentle man’s broad, irony-resistant popularity has remained something to behold, continuing to sprout even in the Internet Age.

Is it disturbing, then, or unsurprising (if we let some 21st century cynicism in), or merely disappointing that the legacy of the publicly beloved but cautiously private Bob Ross, who died more than 25 years ago, isn’t immune to controversy? Joshua Rofé’s new documentary, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed,” is a serviceably uplifting chronicle of how a nature-loving soul turned a passionate gift into a cultural/business phenomenon, but it also has a story to tell about the unseen parts of his fame, and it turns out to be not as pretty a picture as the ones he manifested countless times on camera.

Anyone concerned that their image of Bob Ross himself will be tarnished, however, needn’t worry. It’s no spoiler to say that, if anything, fans of the soft-spoken icon — an ex-Air Force sergeant whose time in Alaska inspired the compact vistas he’d paint by the tens of thousands — are likely to love him even more. As for the uninitiated, they may start to wonder, hey, is there an artist inside me somewhere?

But the deflated, stricken appearance early on of Ross’ only son, Steve — himself a painter and instructor who guested on his dad’s show — pulling on a cigarette and referring to the “shameful” actions of others, is an eyebrow-raiser. Another is the bit of text that says more than a dozen people who worked at the company that bore Bob Ross’ name wouldn’t talk to the filmmakers. Their fear? Legal retribution by the Kowalski family, who discovered Ross, packaged him for television, became his business partners and have been running Bob Ross Inc. — very profitably — since the painter’s death from lymphoma in 1995.

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Rofé (the Amazon Prime series “Lorena”) does a smooth job of weaving the cheerful, inspiring parts of Ross’ rise — from eccentric details about his genuineness and appeal to what he meant to his devotees — with the shadow story of a turbulent business enterprise, namely a portrait of Ross’ partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski (also not interviewed but seen in news clips), as supportive handlers turned cagey, unscrupulous manipulators driven by jealousy and money.

Friends and colleagues of Ross who do appear on film help sketch in some of those details. Elsewhere, interstitial drawings act as almost anti-Bob Ross illustrations, silhouetted figures inhabiting gloomy spaces to accompany moments when the behind-the-scenes stuff — which includes allegations of adultery and intimations that the Kowalskis haven’t honored the Ross legacy — is especially tense. And the story of the fight for control of the business, which Steve claims began when Ross was on his deathbed, is indeed a suspicious one, even if it raises more questions about rights ownership than it answers.

Part biopic, part mystery, part exposé, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” is ultimately a cooled celebration, one eager to acknowledge that gurus are complicated, showbiz is treacherous, and some landscapes hide things. There’s plenty to delight in, even if what lingers is an embittered, still-mourning son looking for a measure of peace when what lives on about his beloved dad is somehow both spiritually true and a reminder of something lost.

'Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Available Aug. 25 on Netflix


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