Review: Painting With John invites Lurie’s charm to a new generation

The new show mixes intimate views of his process and lifestyle with engaging and humorous storytelling.

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Photo HBO

John Lurie isn’t exactly considered to be the Bob Ross type.

Samuel Elliott, Staff Writer

John Lurie’s work began in the late 70’s. He formed a band with his brother, Evan Lurie, called The Lounge Lizards, in which he played saxophone. To a degree of “right place at the right time” luck, the band’s satirical jazz slotted right in with the emerging no-wave scene that encompassed the 80’s New York underground, the scene that spawned such figureheads as Arto Lindsay, Jody Harris and Lydia Lunch.

The band would go on to produce four albums during its career, gradually shifting from chaotic avant-jazz to Lurie’s own expansive arrangements as the band developed in personnel and style. These moody, subdued compositions would develop further in a series of film soundtracks, notably for the Jim Jarmusch films Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise, in which Lurie also starred. The music and acting would go on to culminate in the cult-classic 90’s series Fishing With John, in which Lurie and guests would simply go fishing, to quite endearing results (if one counts Tom Waits putting a carp down his pants endearing).

But as is far too common with the greatest of artists, Lurie’s road was not without struggle. In the early 00’s, Lurie contracted Lyme disease, the effects leaving him unable to continue his music career. In the absence of musical output, he took up painting, an art which he has continued for the past two decades, to much success and critical acclaim. Lurie became somewhat removed from the public sphere for a while, and his recent return reveals him to be residing on a undisclosed Caribbean island, among the fruits of obscurity the jungle provides.

That is, until he got a tv show on HBO.

“Ghost On Stilts,” 2019. Art by John Lurie.

With the exposition out of the way, I’ll actually start to review the show. To quite literally anyone, the phrase “painting television show” immediately conjures references to the relaxation and wholesome educational nature of Bob Ross. John Lurie is quick to contradict; in lieu of soothing painting advice and heartwarming reassurance of quality, Painting With John offers a sheepish “I have no clue what I’m doing” and a story about his oven exploding in return. The actual idea is quite ingenious: it feels like one’s just sitting in the room with John as he works, listening to him tell stories and occasionally stopping to roll a tire down a hill or crash multiple drones into a bush.

“When Alice Got Off of Her Cell Phone and Came in From the Pool the Bunny Was Going to Give Her a Spanking,” 2003. Art by John Lurie.

The entire show has somewhat of a relaxed intimacy to it, a feeling  heightened by the lovely cinematography, which gives macro-lens views of Lurie’s paints leeching into one another at the will of his erratic brushstrokes. And speaking of his paintings, they’re really quite good; Lurie has a bold, yet natural somewhat primitivist style, and his dry and uncanny humour shows through his works in their offhand subject matter and conversational titles.

At the end of each episode we see a close-up of the paintings he was working on during the end credit sequence, along with a few choice others. There’s no real rush to take them in before they’re gone; the entire show is masterful in its ability to breathe and linger without feeling boring or drawn out.

I should probably mention that I don’t really watch much television; it’s often just not worth the effort to commit to regularly scheduled programming. But the charm of this show is really something special.

It was through the lens of his prior works that I had been introduced to John; after seeing a late night cable-TV showing of Down by Law, I was enamoured with his music and performance, and quickly snapped up all of his albums and every episode of Fishing With John. To a long-time fan like myself, the series is masterful in its combination of Lurie’s two strong suits: interspersing sardonic, offhand humour into an intimate and subdued atmosphere.

Its had me recording every episode to my DVR and watching them religiously, as I did with Fishing With John before. While it doesn’t reach the heights of chaotic humour as that show did, or show off his extraordinary acting skills like his work in Down by Law or Stranger Than Paradise, Painting With John is wonderful in its own right, and John’s trademark wit and character blossoms even in such an unnatural environment as a modern streaming show.

All in all, Painting With John cements itself as both an enjoyable pillar in Lurie’s catalogue for long-time fans, as well as a great introductory point to his work for newcomers flipping through HBO, giving tastes of his current visual works soundtracked with some of his greatest auditory works; an engaging, humourous and intimate conversation with an incredibly interesting individual.

“They were weird. But they saw something even weirder.” 2019. Art by John Lurie.