“As I get better talking to the camera, I become a worse person,” says John Lurie in one of his frequent comments of reluctant self-awareness and low key self-deprecation. “I crashed seven drones,” he tells us at another point. “Any idiot can fly a drone.” Indeed, doomed drone footage opens each offbeat episode of the new HBO series Painting With John (new episode premiers every Friday on HBO Max through February 26). Sweeping drone camera views of the undisclosed forested tropical island paradise where Lurie now resides inevitably end with a thudding crash into tree branches. Then we meet John in his home painting studio, usually at night, where he meticulously creates his vibrant primitivist paintings as he spins unusual tales of his past life as a key 1980s and 90s New York City underground music and film figure.
Lurie has always been a reluctant star. “You can’t undo fame,” he says. “It took me forever.” Best known for his avant-garde jazz group The Lounge Lizards and for his roles in Jim Jarmusch classics such as Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, he recounts the time he saw his name on a movie theater marquee billed alongside Tom Waits, and how it made him even more depressed than he’d already been. Lurie’s appeal is that of the wise and hip curmudgeon variety, a little Larry David mixed with Steven Wright. Bob Ross he most certainly is not. In fact, he tells us, “Bob Ross was wrong. Not everyone can paint.” Lurie’s show is not instructional, but it’s also nowhere near discouraging. In these six brief episodes, we are presented with a man who found painting to be a miracle of creative salvation after fights with cancer and Lyme disease stopped him from performing music or acting.
“You should try this,” he finally tells his viewers towards the end of the series. “See what it gives you. Just mess around with it.” And one would have to be a little dead inside not to be transfixed and inspired by the numerous close shots of Lurie’s brush as it blends bright colors and deftly sweeps lines to the music of his own roaming jazzy bluesy score.
Painting With John is the older and wiser brother of Lurie’s cult early 90s cable show Fishing With John. While that show featured surreal fishing trips with figures such as Willem Dafoe, Dennis Hopper, and Tom Waits, here we are alone and meditative with the now white-bearded and wearied yet dry-humored raconteur. And just as fishing served as a backdrop to subtle hijinks in Fishing With John, the new show presents painting as a background and metaphorical foundation to the droll tales and bitter wisdoms that Lurie imparts.
Doing cocaine for three hours in a broom closet with Rick James and Steve Rubell, being spurned by Gore Vidal on a flight from Paris to New York (even after Lurie helps Vidal retrieve his heavy luggage from the baggage carousel), the time both he and his mother were thrown out of the DMV on the same day for having bad attitudes, strangling an eel to death so it will lay straight for an album cover photo (the eel fought back valiantly) – these are just a few of the non-sequitur tales told in Lurie’s gruff baritone while he paints and sometimes looks suspiciously into the camera.
But a sweeter and more philosophical side is also revealed: that time Lurie covered for a little girl after she embarrassed herself in a fancy restaurant by dropping her plate onto the floor (“I did it,” Lurie announces to the suddenly hushed dining room crowd), the ways he insists that the local tree frog singing rhythms are true natural music that even the most skilled of musicians cannot replicate, his chat with the full moon up in the sky (“do you ever get lonely up there – do any other moons ever visit?”), rolling tires down a hill and pretending to be an elephant while holding a large tree trunk…there is an undeniable charm and good-naturedness to Lurie which can’t be ignored, even as he repeatedly implores his weary household assistants (Nesrin Wolf and Ann Mary Gludd James) “do you mind telling the people at home what a good and fair boss I am?” while they both look like they’re about to burst out laughing at his delusional request.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this show,” he says. “Do me a favor and turn it off,” he asks the viewer. Or if you don’t want to turn it off, he says, at least don’t tell anyone about the show. But even with all of Lurie’s apparent reluctance and awkward self-parody (at one point we get to see his very arrhythmic “white person dance”), spending some time with John in his self-exiled paradise is a simple pleasure which can yield surprisingly deep and entertaining rewards.