For a man whose life was lived so publicly, so on-screen, it’s almost surprising that it took three years from his death to make a movie about Anthony Bourdain. But with the release of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain today, that gap in the intense media coverage that surrounded his life has finally been corrected.
Roadrunner is a documentary about the late, great chef and TV personality’s life and death, and is directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, 20 Feet from Stardom). Neville sits down with people from throughout Bourdain’s life to interview them about the different chapters he lived, and the story he hoped to tell before his untimely death by suicide in 2018.
All photos used courtesy of Focus Films via Youtube.
The film starts in 1999, in the aftermath of his first piece in The New Yorker: “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” (April 19, 1999). That single story catapulted the intrepid writer and already accomplished 41-year old chef to stardom; using documentary footage from a previously unreleased film, Neville begins to craft the narrative of Bourdain’s public life – one that fit him uncomfortably.
From that point forward, Roadrunner moves in a relatively chronological fashion. Savvy watchers will notice the use of video clips from Bourdain’s own iPhone videos and Instagram stories (which were not released until mid-2016), much earlier in his life than he actually filmed them – but they provide context and perspective from the subject’s point of view.
Roadrunner also attempts to look deeply inward to Bourdain’s psyche, through interviews with family – including his brother Chris and ex-wife Ottavia –, friends – including fellow chefs, artists, and musicians –, and colleagues – including many from the production company he worked with throughout his TV career, Zero Point Zero. Over the 18 years of his television career, some characters enter and exit while others serve in steadfast, recurring roles.
Despite its early foreshadowing – “You’re probably going to find out about this anyway, so here’s a little preemptive truth-telling,” Bourdain voices in the movie’s first few minutes. “There’s no happy ending.” – Roadrunner seasons moments of joy on a somber, soulful foundation.
It’s clear even from his earliest days in the spotlight that Bourdain was deeply uncomfortable with this role and sought to find his place even as he embraced it, just as he did throughout his life through drug addiction, the skulduggery of the kitchen, and two marriages. We see him laugh and smile, betray glimpses of deep contentment, and hear him speak of happiness – though we know throughout that these emotions evaded him in his final moments.
Due to that final punctuation, Roadrunner must necessarily stretch out the narrative as it approaches Bourdain’s suicide. It looks closely at his relationship with actress and director Asia Argento, and how that might have played a role in reaching the mental state where he felt that death was his only option.
Though the film – and interviewees – don’t go so far as to lay any blame beyond Bourdain’s own hand, it’s clear that he was not in a good place and their relationship wasn’t helping. Nor was the incessant attention and demand for Bourdain’s celebrity, as his star only continued to rise as his work portfolio grew.
Roadrunner does a masterful job of celebrating Bourdain’s life and accomplishments while still showing the heavy weight of public life and the personal burdens he already carried. So many viewers will not have yet properly processed their own grief, sadness, and anger about his death; Roadrunner helps the audience begin that journey, while still showing the incredible life of a man we all admired.
“It’s fucking hard to process the loss of somebody like that,” said director Neville in an interview for The New Yorker. “It was happening while I was doing the interviews, it’s been happening while I’ve been making the film, and it will keep happening for years.” Roadrunner begins that process for those interviewed, and those watching.
The film’s final act is heartbreaking and cathartic, diving into the warning signs that Bourdain was in a much darker place than he was able to share or others were able to reach. The final scenes, though, are transcendent. No fade to black – no somber music; instead, friends celebrate his life with their own art, reflecting the huge impact he had on everyone he met and the millions he didn’t.
Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain is currently in theaters. Purchase tickets on Fandango.com.
If you or someone you know is dealing with their mental health or thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for free, confidential information, support, and referrals, available 24/7/365.