The first interviewee we hear in Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is Bourdain’s friend, musician John Lurie. A gruff and bearded presence who doesn’t come back into the film until near the end as friends and family describe the dark spiraling of Bourdain before his death in 2018, Lurie says, “He committed the suicide, the fucking asshole. That’s why you’re here, right?”
While Neville is somewhat more unsparing and less celebratory about his subject than might have been guessed—his documentaries from Best of Enemies to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tend to take an eyes-open but still mostly generous approach—this is not a muckraking piece of work looking to peel back the curtain on a man valorized by many. Largely that is because Bourdain started his career by pulling back the curtain, first on the industry in which he made his bones and later on himself.
Neville charts the arc of Bourdain’s life mostly from the point of his becoming famous. Blessed as many documentarians are not with a subject who spent over 15 years being filmed, Neville focuses primarily on that part of his life. We are given little scraps of his backstory, references to his wayward rebellious drug-taking youth (“What the fuck was I so angry about?” he ponders in a scene on the beach in Provincetown, where he started out as a wayward dishwasher in the 1970s).
Then not much of anything happens before we see him on the cusp of fame as an executive chef serving up mighty piles of gorgeous frites at the great but sadly now-departed New York French brasserie, Les Halles. Like other stages in his life, being a chef defined Bourdain and was also something he wanted to escape.
The pre-celebrity Bourdain we see in various clips and as described by the squadron of friends, family, and colleagues who eagerly deliver vivid anecdotes to Neville is a restless soul but more seeker than dissatisfied. A deftly-chosen soundtrack (Jonathan Richman, Television, Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakomoto), neatly spliced-in film clips (Apocalypse Now, The Seventh Seal, My Own Private Idaho, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), and shots of a certain brand of iconic writer (William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson) efficiently illustrate the cultural soil that Bourdain’s creative impetus grew from. Known throughout the world for food, he really thought of himself as a writer and a bit of a cineaste.
The current theatrical landscape in which celebrity culture mixes with foodie nerdism and extreme travel narratives is impossible to imagine without a boundary-crossing hyphenate enthusiast like Bourdain. What is de rigueur now—chefs with tattoos and potty mouths going to faraway lands or little-known domestic dives to eat off-the-beaten-path foods—was more or less invented in 2000. That was the year Bourdain blew up the still-staid manner of writing about cuisine with his bestselling behind-the-scenes part-memoir part-manifesto Kitchen Confidential.
After dishing on many of his industry’s secrets with a swashbuckling verve, he became one of the new millennium’s first alt-heroes. His book’s notoriety gave him the bona fides to start his first food travel show, A Cook’s Tour, in 2002.
Neville doesn’t bother differentiating one of Bourdain’s shows from the other, apart from noting how once he got on CNN with Parts Unknown it became clear that exploration was key and food a lower priority. Having started out as the aggro food dude, he had bigger things in mind. His journeys to places like Laos and Haiti were, securing anchoring moments centered around cuisine, aggressive attempts to dig into what it really meant to be a traveler and not a tourist.
Neville holds Bourdain up for the praise he is due for such efforts but also shows the darker and not necessarily always altruistic drive pushing him. It is hard to watch Bourdain and crew in outtakes goofing around with Apocalypse Now quotes while taking a boat into the Democratic Republic of Congo and not feel a little queasy. No matter how many different angles Bourdain tried, no matter how many well-wrought and soul-searching voiceovers he wrote, he had a hard time escaping being the “food bad boy”, as he mockingly self-identified in a Simpsons cameo, the mark of late-period celebrity.
Ironically, celebrity was what allowed Bourdain to get away from cooking. At one point in the film, David Chang (one of the many chef friends whom Bourdain gathered as mates even years after he had quit the kitchen) relates asking Bourdain answering how he managed to be so nice to all the autograph hounds. Bourdain said that not only was it his job to be gracious but doing that sure beat being a “middling line cook at a struggling restaurant”.
While Bourdain’s fame and wealth were liberating, being released from the grind of the kitchen and set free to wander the Earth might not have been the healthiest thing for an all-or-nothing manic ex-addict like him. There’s a moment right after Bourdain has started his TV career when he looks at the camera and says, “My rent is paid!” The look on his face has wonder in it but also the “what now?” confusion often seen in workaholics who can no longer use their jobs as an escape.
Somewhat fittingly for a film about a man whose first marriage is described by a friend as being like Sid and Nancy (Cox, 1985) the last third or so of Roadrunner is a steady but increasingly pell-mell hurtle towards the grave. According to his friend Doug Quint (the cheery genius behind Big Gay Ice Cream Truck), in the last two years of Bourdain’s life, “he got back on track … it was a bad track.”
Neville does little to burnish the legend, including one story after another of friends reduced to tears by a cruel remark and long-time collaborators chucked aside on a whim as Bourdain pursued new obsessions with a seemingly cheerless intensity. His full-bore romance with Asia Argento is detailed in much of its ugliness–as it should be given how that episode divided people in his life–but fortunately without any tabloid attempt to make her, or in fact anybody else, the villain of how he ended his life.
Early in Roadrunner, we hear Bourdain say, in a tone that mixed surprise with a bit of rakish pride, “I always use language to get out of trouble.” Unfortunately, words were not enough.