If you know anything about John Lurie – musician, actor, artist, among other things – you’ll probably be able to guess that Painting with John isn’t really a show about painting. Lots of painting happens in it, sure, with the camera close in on every dab of watercolour Lurie applies to the fantastical flora and fauna of his surrealistic landscapes. But, as far as dialogue goes, painting, let alone teaching his audience how to paint, seems to be about the last thing on Lurie’s mind. Cut together every moment when he directly addresses the topic, and you’d struggle to make a 30-second clip, even allowing for Lurie’s generous way with a pause. On his own art: ‘I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing. I’m just stubborn.’ On the rest of us: ‘Bob Ross was wrong. Everybody can’t paint. It’s not true.’ Five episodes later, ‘You should try this.’
Of course, though, that’s kind of the point. At heart, the whole affair is just an excuse to hang out with John Lurie – which for plenty of people, me included, will be more than enough. Painting is more or less just something for Lurie to do with his hands during six episodes of a show that sees him reflect on his life, share some anecdotes, and generally inhale the pleasures of his life on a small, unnamed, Caribbean island. That, really, is about it. But it works.
Lurie has plenty to talk about. At this point, by my reckoning, he is on something like his fourth career, and has managed to make his mark in each instance. Since the late 1970s he has been, variously, a saxophonist and band-leader (of unclassifiable avant-jazz band the Lounge Lizards), an actor (in films ranging from Down by Law and Paris, Texas to The Last Temptation of Christ), and a film composer (the soundtrack to Get Shorty is his). If he has remained a cult figure, he is nevertheless about as successful as it is possible for a cult figure to be. His last foray into something like ‘factual’ TV, Fishing with John (1991–92), featured him, for the most part incompetently, going on fishing trips with buddies like Willem Dafoe and Tom Waits. It was slow, boring, weird, low-budget, and now has its own Criterion DVD. In 2006 one of his paintings, Bear Surprise – a naive landscape that, in fairly classic Lurie fashion, shows an anthropomorphic bear interrupting a happy couple’s outdoor coitus by creeping up on them and shouting ‘Surprise!’ – became a Russian meme so popular that Vladimir Putin was asked about it at a press conference.
If Painting with John is a kind of well-deserved victory lap that features Lurie, his home, his paintings, and a greatest hits soundtrack of his music, it has none of the smug self-congratulation someone else might bring to it. Lurie has always been lugubrious to a degree unachievable by most ordinary human beings – something aided in part by the remarkable droop of his lower lip, bequeathed by a lifetime’s saxophone practice. Age and the tiredness brought on by illness – since the 1990s Lurie has suffered from Lyme disease, and he was more recently treated for cancer – have only deepened the droop, and the depressive New York growl that goes with it. Between painting sessions, Lurie shuffles around in shorts and tank tops, sighing heavily, swearing, lamenting the fact that talking direct to camera is making him a ‘sociopath’, and coaxing his assistant and housekeeper to tell the folks at home what a good and fair boss he is. Even the series of parodic drone shots that show off his island paradise are undercut by the fact that, each and every time, Lurie manages to crash the drone.
The grumpiness is joyful, though, which is why Painting with John is so great. One long anecdote about an encounter with Gore Vidal on a plane winds up in the succinct payoff: ‘So I just wanted to say, “Fuck you, Gore Vidal”.’ His ‘encounter with the miraculous’ turns out to be an anecdote about meeting Barry White, whose ‘voice was so loud and so deep that my testicles began to vibrate’. Fame, which is sort of awful and fills no kind of emotional hole, results in situations like taking cocaine in a broom cupboard for three hours with Rick James and having absolutely nothing else to say about it: ‘No story. Just a funny image.’ Cancer treatment, meanwhile, is worse than you can imagine, but provides fodder for a story that culminates in Lurie, dazed by vertigo and an exploding oven, sitting on his porch naked and covered in burns, holding a machete in one hand and smearing himself with aloe vera with the other, left with no option but to greet his neighbour’s horrified gaze with a smile and a wave.
And, in the end, the show does turn out to be about painting, especially as far as joy is concerned. Painting may have become Lurie’s main focus only because illness has left him unable to play music or act, but you can see why he shrugs – ‘Don’t look at me like that’ – when he mentions these darker moments. Seen only as fragments of a work in progress in the body of episodes, his watercolours appear in each credits sequence as a slide show, gorgeous and weird: the world filtered through Lurie’s remarkable gaze. He’s doing just fine. But I’d happily tune into a second series to hear him complain some more.
Painting with John is now streaming on HBO Max.