Cult Icon John Lurie Is Back to Soothe Your Soul in ‘Painting With John’
A companion piece to “Fishing with John,” this new HBO series features the jazz musician/actor/director/composer/artist offering life lessons while painting on a Caribbean island.
John Lurie—saxophonist, singer, actor, director, and painter—is a true jack-of-all trades, best known for founding and leading the Lounge Lizards jazz ensemble, his performances in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law (as well as his work on HBO’s Oz), and his sterling IFC/Bravo TV series Fishing with John, in which he took various famous friends (Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, and Dennis Hopper) on fishing trips around the world. Few artists have had a career as eclectic and surprising as Lurie, and thus his disappearance from the national stage over the past two decades due to battles with chronic Lyme disease and cancer has been a significant loss to the worlds of music, television, and the movies.
That all changes, however, on Jan. 22, when Lurie makes his grand return to the spotlight with HBO’s Painting With John, a spiritual successor to Fishing with John that finds him ruminating on various topics while creating odd, colorful, mosaic-esque paintings with titles like “He was strange and so was his apartment,” “This Party Sucks,” “Aww, get your foot off the table,” and “Bobo didn’t believe in evolution so God turned him into a flower.” Like its predecessor, the new non-fiction series—which is written and directed by Lurie—is notable for its idiosyncratic structure, atmosphere, and personality, all of which wholly emanates from its star. In each of its 20-minute installments, it provides a snapshot of Lurie crafting tableaux with paint and brush at his lamp-illuminated desk in his Caribbean island house. Yet this endeavor is no more designed to teach one how to paint than Lurie’s earlier show was meant to edify viewers about the ins and outs of using a rod and lure. Rather, it’s a jazzy, comical showcase for Lurie to assume another of his numerous compelling guises: that of laid-back, vivid storyteller.
Take, for example, the series’ second episode, in which Lurie admits that he had hoped that this TV series would be educational, but now realizes that he largely paints from intuition. That confession seems to also pertain to Painting With John as a whole, since Lurie then segues into a long tale about a horrible incident involving his lack of sleep (a lingering side effect of his cancer treatment), a faulty oven, and a massive early-morning explosion that destroyed his kitchen but, miraculously, left him unscathed, save for some smoldering shorts and a few burns that he treated with the aloe plant he’d planted on his property. What does this story have to do with anything? In a certain sense, nothing. And yet Lurie’s ensuing statement that people should have fun every day—such as rolling tires down a hill, which he demonstrates—casts his calamitous anecdote as a reminder about the preciousness of life.
With a graying goatee and sideburns, semi-unkempt hair, and a collection of loose-fitting button-down shirts and shorts, Lurie has a slightly ramshackle appearance that’s perfectly in tune with the proceedings, which are initiated each week by aerial footage through the island’s lush greenery that concludes with Lurie’s drone crashing to the ground. The self-consciousness of this intro carries through to the action proper, as in the third episode “Elephant,” when Lurie admits that it’s very strange to talk to a camera lens as if it were a person (“It’s so artificial”). He muses that those who are good at this sort of performance are “probably sociopaths, because it’s just a weird thing to do,” and then says that the better he’s become at it, the worse he’s become as a person—a semi-jokey sentiment that hangs in the air, even after he follows it up with “I’m not kidding.”
Photographed and edited by Erik Mockus, Painting With John intersperses Lurie’s musings and memories with close-ups of his brush adding color and lines to his canvas, scored to a collection of instrumental songs by Lurie and the Lounge Lizards. The effect is gently transportive, and that’s also true of Lurie’s scattered tales about his childhood and early career, which speak to his own beliefs about life and art. Whether it’s a story about his Mighty Mouse-cosplaying brother hanging up a phone call that his dad had been anxiously awaiting, or one concerning his quest to procure an eel to photograph for an album cover—an adventure marked by a series of crazy twists and turns, and punctuated by a jaw-dropping conclusion—Lurie’s reminiscences resound with both humor and sly profundity.
Fishing with John’s off-kilter rhythm and comedy, its focus on a charismatically distinctive headliner-as-guide, and its empathetic interest in the environments and cultures in which it operated, influenced scores of programs that followed in its wake (most recently, How To with John Wilson). Painting With John triumphantly continues that tradition. A semi-improvisatory spirit energizes Lurie’s latest, be it in a kitchen chat with Nesrin Wolf and Annmary Gludd-James, the two women who work for him—which is replayed a second time with a sitcom laugh track—or Lurie’s desire to stomp around his property pretending that a giant tree branch is his elephant trunk. It’s a show driven by Lurie’s spur-of-the-moment creative instincts, and the fact that it comes up with so many clever moments in such a brief timespan is a testament to his gift for locating the droll, poignant and meaningful in the seemingly mundane and trivial.
Painting With John’s overarching ethos is articulated by Lurie in its maiden chapter, when the star explains, “Bob Ross was wrong. Everybody can’t paint… I think that everybody can paint when they’re young… And I think most of us, maybe all of us, when we’re three, four, five, six, seven, we’re all artists. We all have that thing. And a lot of people, it gets pounded out of you. Or the adult part of your mind tells you to drop that. Which might be the way to go. I don’t know… I’m still searching for my inner adult.” That quest continues in amusing and enlightening fashion with Lurie’s long-awaited TV homecoming, and though it’s impossible to guess where the series will go (only the season’s first three of six episodes were provided to press), it’s a joy to finally have him back.