Morgan Neville takes a revealing look into the fascinating yet complicated life of chef, travel guru, television host, and author Anthony Bourdain with his new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”. Neville doesn’t set out to do an exhaustive dive into the man’s life story. Instead he hones in on Bourdain’s rise from discouraged executive chef at Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles to full-blown cultural celebrity. But through it all Neville’s focus remains intently on the man underneath the brash and snarky exterior; the man who sadly took his own life on June 8, 2018. He was 61.
Neville unpacks the enigma that is Anthony Bourdain through his subject’s own words and those of friends, creative partners, his brother, and his second wife among others. Bourdain had an unmistakable physical presence – a tall and slender frame, a thick curly crop of hair, a big toothy smile. Outspoken and often unfiltered, he was more than happy to share his opinions and he didn’t shy away from talking about his drug-riddled past. Throw in his love for punk rock and his two-pack-a-day smoking habit and you have a bad-boy image that would stick with him, whether it was deserved or not.
But as we quickly learn, Bourdain’s larger-than-life persona was hiding the troubled and brittle psyche of a man who never felt comfortable in his own skin. Neville’s film reveals a man struggling in his ill-fated pursuit of true happiness. He gets tastes along the way – meeting and marrying his second wife Ottavia Busia; becoming a father for the first time at age 50. But as one of Bourdain’s long-time television collaborators puts it, reality could never live up to his romanticized view of it.
“Roadrunner” pulls from an assortment of never-before-seen video including private recordings, behind the scenes television footage, etc. They allow us to see the man friends called “Tony” both flourish and struggle in the various stages of his professional life. We get old video showing his love/hate relationship with the kitchen. We see him overwhelmed by the success of his lawless memoir “Kitchen Confidential”. And of course there are countless clips from his wildly popular television shows where he would travel the globe exploring culture and cuisine; introducing American audiences to exotic places and exotic foods.
And of course the film chronicles his final years which Neville handles with a thoughtful yet unflinchingly honest touch. Leading up to his second divorce, it almost seems as if Bourdain had given up on the prospect of a normal life. “I want to be normal. I want to be like everyone else,” he laments only to later admit “I don’t even know what (normal) is anymore.” Then Neville leans on the words of Bourdain’s colleagues and friends to unwrap his unhealthy infatuation with girlfriend Asia Argento. Filming his show became a chore especially for his long-time crew who were finding him harder and harder to work with. And of course it only got darker from there.
Anthony Bourdain was a fascinating figure with a robust and sometimes in-your-face personality that made him easy to love or hate. “Roadrunner” doesn’t try to rewrite the man or soften his jagged edges. In many ways it attempts to make sense of his mystique while also shedding light on the person himself who inspired millions to live their lives to the fullest even as he struggled to find contentment in his own. There’s a bleakness to the film that Neville doesn’t hide from, but that comes with the honesty he brings. It’s what ultimately sets the movie apart from so many other by-the-book celebrity retrospectives. “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” opens in theaters this Friday (July 16th).