When Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in 2018, the feelings of shock and sadness from his countless fans were visceral. Following his mid-life professional transition from semi-successful chef to rousingly successful author and global gadfly, Bourdain had an appeal that was inextricably linked to the impression he gave the audience that we knew him, that we were privy to his thoughts and reflections and, therefore, to something deeper and more personal. For Bourdain to die, and to die in that way, felt like an incalculable loss for many — and perhaps even like a betrayal. Because we thought we knew him.
We did not know him.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Sad, emotionally messy and filled with remarkable footage.
Many of the people who actually knew Anthony Bourdain best are featured in Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of eventual theatrical, CNN and HBO Max availability. It’s an intensely painful documentary, one closer to the center of a raw, thoroughly unhealed, and yet very public, wound than I think I’ve ever seen before.
Documentaries are often a forum for processing tragedy, sometimes in the near-immediate aftermath of events like 9/11 or the COVID Summer of 2020, but something comes across as different about the unresolved grief and responsibility felt by those Bourdain left behind. This results in a film that will move you — definitely to sadness, perhaps to anger — and, if you’re like me, a film that doesn’t always feel like it should have been made at all, at least not at this moment and in this way. It’s a film that’s hard to look away from, whether your takeaway is catharsis or something uncomfortably unresolved.
At several points in Roadrunner, Bourdain is heard mentioning that he traveled 250 days a year, with cameras constantly running. This compulsion is presented as a different kind of addiction, a manifestation of the depression that contributed to his death. At the same time, the compulsion is masked in a commitment that contributed directly to why audiences felt such a deep attachment to Bourdain — and just as directly to Neville’s ability to make a documentary that gives the impression of almost mind-boggling access to a man Neville never actually met.
The movie basically starts in 1999, with Bourdain on the cusp of the release of Kitchen Confidential, the book that would change his life. From there, nearly everything comes filtered through his post-breakout TV ubiquity — talk show appearances, promotional speeches and, of course, material from A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover and Parts Unknown.
Many of the people the documentary presents as being closest to Bourdain will already be familiar to dedicated fans, because they were also people Bourdain shared experiences with on his TV shows. And those people, three years later, are still hurting. As much as you can tell they want to celebrate their friend’s life, there’s the other side as well. “He committed suicide, the fucking asshole,” John Lurie says in the documentary’s first words from any talking head.
Subjects on-hand include Bourdain’s second wife Ottavia, his brother Chris and familiar figures from Bourdain’s dispatches, many stars of their own TV shows that owe much to Bourdain’s business model and legacy — folks like Lurie (star of his own HBO show), chef David Chang (star of Neville’s terrific Netflix series Ugly Delicious) and artist David Choe (star of an upcoming FX series).
And since so much of Bourdain’s life was TV, it’s no surprise how many of the documentary’s best recollections come from the producers, directors and crews of his different shows. They’re the ones who got to watch first-hand how Bourdain grew from a food-centric guy with little global experience, willing to do sensationalistic things like eating a still-beating cobra heart, into a man whose focus became the people he met on his journeys and the opportunity to embed and immerse himself in places and conversations that moved him. There’s so much footage, and Neville deploys both the in-episode material and the wealth of outtakes tremendously. We see the awkward, wooden beginnings, the pivotal events — in Beirut, Haiti, etc. — that shifted his perspective and then, yes, the rough patches toward the end, including the footage shot on the Parts Unknown episode that was filming when he died.
It shouldn’t be anybody’s responsibility to cope with something like this on-camera and I don’t know where “three years” fits on a grieving timeline, but I’m sure not everybody is going to be on the same page at the same moment.
In five or 10 years, will people look back at Roadrunner and feel like there was too much collective blame put on Asia Argento, Bourdain’s tumultuous last love? Will the members of his crew no longer be so consciously regretful of the signs they noticed but didn’t have any way to directly confront? Was Neville, a typically upbeat and celebratory storyteller, even the right person to be guiding this meditation? Is his approach, very polished and very conventional, the proper one to capture Bourdain’s messy spirit?
I’m going to be honest: I’m much more comfortable with Roadrunner as a portrait of an evolving, complicated, tragic TV personality, and as one of the best behind-the-scenes glimpses of a TV show (or shows) I’ve ever seen, than I am with it as an attempt to make sense of a man who, for whatever reason, no longer wanted to continue living.