Director: Joshua Rofe | 1h 32mins | Documentary
Bob Ross inspired a generation of artists through his long running TV show The Joy of Painting, but his son Steve tells the story of how his father’s business partners stole his family’s name.
Netflix has become known for its original content, in particular the many documentaries they often produce. Though many will know the TV shows more, they’ve had plenty of success with the features too (the 2021 Academy Awards gave the Best Feature Oscar to 2020’s My Octopus Teacher), one of the most recent about the therapeutic show The Joy of Painting. Those who’ve watched it will instantly recognise the minimalistic set design and soothing voice of it’s host Bob Ross, whose son Steve provides a large portion of the interview for this documentary.
One of the reasons this film ends up succeeding is not shying away from the more salacious aspects of Ross’ life, in which Steve openly explains to us. Nothing Ross did was terrible, but for a figure that could be seen as one dimensional through his show it gives him more layers and allows us to appreciate him more as a normal person, rather than just the calming voice on TV. This also helps to make the blow of the story of how Steve had his fathers name stolen that bit more effecting, as so much of what Ross did was to make a better life for his son.
Shortly after the film starts, there’s a small passage of text that tells us over a dozen people were asked to participate in the documentary, but most declined due to fear of being sued by the Kowalski’s – Annette and husband Walt, the former of which Ross met after she suffered a devastating loss. In regards to the legal action, we’re told this is nothing new to the couple, as they aren’t afraid to use their lawyers against those who slander them or the company they created with Ross, Bob Ross Inc (BRI).
To tell more of the story would spoil the point in watching the documentary – we know from the start Steve doesn’t have the rights to his father’s name or likeness, it’s one of the first points he talks about, so instead the narrative focuses on how The Joy of Painting came to be, the successes of the show and the alleged persistence of the Kowalski’s to gain control of BRI. There’s quite a few affecting moments throughout, not least when Steve and those closest from the show talk about his decline once he was diagnosed with lymphoma (with one of his friends suggesting potentially contributing to this), but manages to keep a consistent tone and pace throughout that feels connected to that of the show. It never ramps up or overly dramatises any moments despite some of the more difficult issues touched upon.
The interviews themselves are fairly straight forward talking heads, and much of the film is still photos slowly moved via the Ken Burns effect, but director Joshua Rofe comes up with a interesting idea to visualise many of the situations discussed via paintings similar to those of Ross’, albeit not landscapes but offices and houses filled with black silhouettes. It certainly leans into the shadier aspects of the story, but is an interesting way to show the unseen aspects of the narrative.
It’s hard to say if the narrative we’re being told is entirely true as we only hear one side of the story, but that in itself is fairly telling. There’s a brief section that explains the Kowalski’s were approached for the film, but in the reply they threaten legal action if their names or the name of BRI is ‘infringed’ upon.
For those not familiar with Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting this is still an interesting watch but isn’t likely to leave them with any resounding effect. However, those fans of Ross or the show will likely find the story fascinating, humanising him as a person far more than seen before.