Roadrunner Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain remembered in the painful, raw documentary Roadrunner

This sometimes ethically dubious new film explores the late celebrity chef and journalist’s life and career.

Like a lot of people, I was a fan of Anthony Bourdain from more or less the second I found out who he was. I’m not sure what it was, really; chef culture wasn’t quite what it is now back then (even if I was probably a few years late to the party) and I wasn’t particularly into what he was selling prior to seeing his television show. Nevertheless, there was something about Bourdain that was appealing to, I think, most people — something about his wounded tough guy act that connected with me even then. On paper, there’s something slightly affected about the Anthony Bourdain we were shown — a chain-smoking, lanky, steel-haired former drug addict who seemed much closer to Lee Marvin than Paul Prud’homme. Bourdain played into the persona to some extent, and we as an audience felt like we really knew him, even if by all accounts we were really only watching a travel show.

When Bourdain committed suicide in 2018, it came as perhaps more of a shock than other high-profile deaths of the same vein. Bourdain wasn’t a sad clown or an angsty musician; he was, for all we knew, a bon vivant whose entire purpose in our lives was to celebrate what made it worth living. But none of us really knew Anthony Bourdain despite what he may have meant to us, as is made abundantly clear by Morgan Neville’s new documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Neville uses copious footage from Bourdain’s life (mainly post-Kitchen Confidential, when he became perhaps the best-known celebrity chef of the 21st century) to construct a portrait that remains fragmented; a portrait of a mercurial man who remained consistently skeptical of his fame and role in the world and who used it as a sort of shield.

The film chronicles Bourdain’s early life as a chef in New York’s les Halles restaurant but really kicks off when Bourdain writes Kitchen Confidential and becomes, in the eyes of many, an overnight success. An intense book tour translates into the show A Chef’s Tour and the dissolution of his first marriage; once Bourdain begins doing TV, he never really stops. On the road 250 days a year on average, Bourdain becomes simultaneously engaged with the world and disengaged from his own presence as he witnesses hardships and poverty across the world from a position of relative privilege. It’s obvious that there’s an anger growing in Bourdain throughout the film — a powerless feeling that eventually comes to a head when actress Asia Argento enters his life.

Roadrunner claims early on that it won’t get into the more tabloid-y aspects of Bourdain’s life and death. While not exactly accurate, the film stops well short of entering spurious Nick Broomfield territory. (A recent New Yorker article has Neville claiming that parts of the Bourdain voiceover used in the film that I had previously assumed to be leftover from episodes of Parts Unknown was actually created by an AI, which is an entirely different zone of questionable ethics.) Nevertheless, the film makes it quite clear what some of Bourdain’s friends’ interpretation of the events is, which in itself makes the film’s thesis clear enough. 

There’s a pervasive sorrow and sadness to Roadrunner that’s rarely seen in biographical documentaries like this one. While it’s certainly not the first movie to eulogize its subject thoroughly, the people interviewed here still seem to be deeply grieving Bourdain, giving the film a raw and uncomfortable immediacy that transcends the film’s otherwise rather familiar approach to the material. It’s impossible to find solutions and answers when someone decides to end their life, and Roadrunner is plastered with this raw incomprehension in a way that feels both transgressive and a little icky. 

From what we learn about Anthony Bourdain through the film and what we already knew about him beforehand, it seems unlikely that he would have enjoyed having a whole-ass documentary made about him. This doesn’t necessarily immediately lead to Roadrunner being wrongheaded or overstepping boundaries. If all we ever had were fawning documentaries made with the subject’s full cooperation that are designed to be liked by them, there’d be almost no point in documentary filmmaking. Nevertheless, there’s something extremely moving about the lack of objectivity and the palpable pain that runs through Roadrunner. Offering no real life lessons or pat conclusions about its subject, it presents a man with a complex personality and evident demons without resorting to the most egregious of hagiographic clichés. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is hardly perfect and sometimes questionable in its documentary ethics, but it’s undeniably moving. ■

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 16. Watch the trailer here:

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, directed by Morgan Neville

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