Written by Patrick Hao
There is a sort of perverse curiosity when we watch a film about a famous public figure whose death came so prematurely, especially when the cause is suicide. The natural inclination is to ask, “Why?” Morgan Neville’s newest documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, is fully aware that the question “Why?” would be in the heads of an audience who would watch a documentary about the famed chef, raconteur, and television presenter. Neville does not shy away from the why, nor does he hinge his film on answering that question. Instead he presents Anthony Bourdain’s humanity and public persona with great intimacy and respect.
Neville chronicles Bourdain’s professional and personal life starting with his breakout success as an author in 2000, with the publication of his memoir Kitchen Confidential. From there, the film progresses mostly linear–describing the development of his travel shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown, highlighting key episodes from them to perceive something deeper about the man and his ethos. Interspersed are talking heads made up of friends and colleagues who are candid about their experiences with Bourdain.
Like all of Neville’s films, Neville is dexterous with his use of the 10,000 hours of footage that he had access to. Because Bourdain was a writer who specialized in an open self-monologuing style, Neville can let the film essentially be narrated by Bourdain himself. Clever use of editing and juxtaposition cause the film to have a haunting quality, so that you fall in love with the zeal that Bourdain had for life without ever forgetting his end.
The footage that Neville uses really captures the appeal of Bourdain to viewers. In every way, the TV-version of Bourdain was an aspirational figure for the modern man. Smart, acerbic, deeply empathetic, and compassionate, with the right bit of punk rock edge to keep him cool. He had the literary stylings of Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton, and a voracious love of film that he was able to bring to the sensibilities of his shows.
Bourdain is a natural subject for Neville’s oeuvre. Neville’s previous documentaries on Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Orson Welles in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead were also about famous figures with intensely crafted public personas that clashed with and bled into their personal lives. Neville similarly demystifies Bourdain’s public persona by delving deep into the ways that Bourdain’s personal life was hampered by his celebrity and work ethic.
Yet, all of the carefully crafted footage and intimate talking heads could not fully capture the intense personal turmoil without traversing salacious territory. The final act of the film portrays Bourdain’s final relationship with film actress/director Asia Argento and falls dangerously close equating the blame of Bourdain’s final moments as an act of romantic revenge (Argento was not interviewed for the film). Thankfully, the film never fully puts the blame on anyone but Bourdain himself, as Neville and talking heads point towards Bourdain’s past heroin addiction creating an addictive personality, as well as his past depression and suicidal thoughts. However, there is enough insinuation there to make one queasy.
The best moments of Roadrunner are the time devoted to how the people who loved Bourdain have reacted to his suicide. Suicide is such a rare topic for any film to grapple with, especially its aftermath. Neville is able to deal with the subject with sensitivity, bolstered by the talking heads’ candidness. The interviewees display a range of anger, confusion, and profound sadness. They also display a deep love for a friend who is gone and gratefulness to have known him. The scars are still there but that means the wounds are healing.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain Trailer
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is currently playing in theaters.
You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.