• Film

Docs: Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (2021)

The dark shadow of the mystery behind a shocking suicide looms over Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Neville’s documentary about the world-renowned chef and TV celeb.

On June 8, 2018, the body of the beloved author and host was found in his hotel – he had taken his own life during the shoot of a new episode of his TV show.

Three years later, the mystery, along with the sadness, continue to prevail and to haunt friends, colleagues and spectators alike. The richly detailed feature does little to shed light on the tragic event that shocked the world.

Neville’s decision not to interview Asia Argento, the Italian actress with whom Bourdain had a tumultuous two-year relationship, is something of a surprise.

The participants can’t conceal their surprise as well as hurt, based on their beliefs that he was an open, honest man, who apparently liked to talk about (and compulsively record) his work and personal life. There are hints of pressures experienced by Bourdain from being a lot on the road, and vague references to anxieties related to his being the father of a young daughter.

A truly private person, who fought his demons alone (including depression, drug addiction and refusal to go to rehab) Bourdain remains an enigma. What Roadrunner does well is to peel the multi-layers of Bourdain’s public persona, as seen by his family, friends, and above all peers and colleagues.

Known for his upbeat approach to life and work, Neville, who won the Best Feature Documentary Oscar for 20 Feet from Stardom and helmed the acclaimed chronicle, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tries to balance the serious as well as joyous elements of Bourdain.

Overall, Roadrunner is more of a fascinating behind-the-scenes account than a truly intimate portrait of the beloved celebrity chef and television globe-trotter. Most years, Bourdain traveled about half of the time, and in one year, he broke his own record by being on the road for 250 days.

The tale begins in 1999 when Bourdain released a book that would completely transform his career and life, Kitchen Confidential.

In a career spanning four decades, Bourdain generated an incredible amount of public exposure – with the cameras constantly running – on talk show appearances, promotional speeches and, of course, diversity of TV shows. The material from A Cook’s TourNo ReservationsThe Layover and Parts Unknown. is nothing short of intriguing.

However, one feels the anger and pain of Bourdain’s friends, who three years after his suicide, are still perplexed by the question of how such a larger-than-life man could commit such an unspeakable act. Some admit the documentary afforded them the first time to talk openly and candidly about his death.

As much as they want to celebrate their friend’s life, there’s the other, darker side. “He committed suicide, the fucking asshole,” bluntly says musician John Lurie (star of his own HBO show), the first interviewee in the piece.

His death hit hard Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame, who reveals he hadn’t been able to make any music. Neville asked him to write a song for the documentary, which was the first he had recorded since his friend’s death in 2018.

We get to meet members of his family, such as Bourdain’s second wife Ottavia, and his brother Chris. Mostly, though, Roadrunner consists of testimonies by colleagues. Some of his peers have gone to successful TV shows of their own: chef David Chang (star of Neville’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious) and artist David Choe (star of an upcoming FX series). Without exception, they all credit Bourdain as their inspirational role model.

Much of Bourdain’s life was television, and so it’s no surprise that many of the best recollections are provided by the producers, directors and crews of his different shows. They recall witnessing how Bourdain grew from a food-centric man with little global experience and limited sophistication into a “citizen of the world,” a man whose focus became the people he met during his journeys, immersing himself in the various places he visited.

In addition to the in-episode materials, there’s interesting footage of outtakes, including awkward moments, stiff introductions, and crucial events in Beirut, Haiti, all occasions that he embraced in an effort to broaden his perspective, which continued to shift up to his very last moment.

Bourdain wasn’t just a lover of food and travel, but an obsessive movie and music fan. He had great taste in music, from Marvin Gay to Iggy Pop to Lydia Lunch and Talking Heads. Paying tribute to his musical range, the documentary uses the rousing Jonathan Richman title track, songs by Television, Brian Eno and Hank Williams Sr., and the haunting theme from David Bowie’s film, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

Bourdain turned his career into so much more than just a celebrity chef, always placing himself at the center and recording his experiences, but without any trace of the narcissism that often goes with that. He knew that his fans wished to see footage of interesting countries through his very own eyes.

Also incorporated are iPhone footage, outtakes of shows, and most importantly, Bourdain’s Instagram stories, which show his darker thoughts at the end of his life.

It’s hard to watch the rougher patches toward the end, especially the footage of the Parts Unknown episode, which was actually shooting when he died.

Roadrunner, which world premieres this weekend at the Tribeca Festival, will be released in theaters by Focus Features on July 6.