There are times, while watching Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, that you almost forget its subject is dead.
As on his groundbreaking TV series A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and Parts Unknown, Bourdain’s voice dominates the documentary, whether through excerpts from audiobooks, old interviews, TV appearances or behind-the-scenes musings. He still seems present, right there, graspable — and, given that every creative venture he ever initiated was about him, as transparent as cellophane.
So why was his self-inflicted demise such a shock to the world? Why didn’t more of his confidantes see the pain underneath the swaggering TV persona, and even if they did, what could they have done about it? These are some of the questions Neville explores in this absorbing biography, a work that’s as rich in irony and regret as Bourdain’s was in butter and cream.
Interspersing voluminous stock footage and candid never-before-seen clips with new interviews with Bourdain’s confidants — among them his ex-wife Ottavia Bourdain and public figures such as artist/musician John Lurie and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme — Neville attempts, with much success, to untangle the man from the myth, cracking open the contractions of his life in search of buried beacons.
Neville is an authoritative voice in his own right; he directed, among others, the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom and the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This time, it seems as though Bourdain is right there with him, co-directing in absentia. That’s how effortlessly the director, in his pacing and structure, seems to channel the boundless curiosity and propulsive pacing of his subject’s instinctive style. Roadrunner is about Bourdain, but it is also is Bourdain, or is at least worthy of Bourdain’s probing and insightful métier.
Neville achieves this in part by dispending of traditional bio-doc formulas. We learn nothing, for instance, of Bourdain’s upbringing. The film starts roughly in 1999, during the genesis of what would become the 43-year-old’s influential memoir Kitchen Confidential. To borrow a culinary metaphor, it’s a life that, in Neville’s telling, begins at a boil and stays there for another 18 years, eclipsing two wives, a child, four television series, 14 books and hundreds of thousands of air miles.
It’s all of that travel, away from home for two-thirds of every year, that transformed Bourdain from shy author to authoritative gastro-adventurer. His job expanded his consciousness and his politics, but it certainly contributed to his suicide. Roadrunner captures a man who had to cultivate twin personae, the husband and father who was never happier than manning a backyard grill, and the fastidious television personality spinning 45-minute narratives from global traumas.
As enviable as Bourdain’s job might have seemed to outsiders, it wasn’t all orgasmic pastas from Michelin-starred chefs; it was catching your next meal without power amid a nauseating thunderstorm in the Congo, seeing your Beirut itinerary disrupted by a war, and breaking menial supplies of bread with penurious Laotians. At one point, Bourdain confided to a friend that he wished he could be erased from his own show — and that this most famous of TV travelers was becoming an agoraphobe.
It’s a life that could wear down anybody, and Neville’s presentation of it is anything but hagiographic. He shows how Bourdain’s perfectionism could slide into tyranny, and how his judgment could be clouded by nepotism; some of the most painful portions of Roadrunner involve the decline of Parts Unknown when he let his new girlfriend, Asia Argento, direct some episodes, to the career detriment of longtime collaborators.
Because Bourdain tended to vocalize everything, warning signs of his depression, frustration and anxiety were everywhere, if patchy and inconsistent. Neville presents clip after clip of the chef musing about his own death, often in terms of black humor — he couldn’t care less about what happens to his corporeal remains, he says, suggesting they be deposited into a wood chipper for public entertainment. It’s therapeutic, Bourdain says, in a potent moment of surfside self-reflection, to think about death every day. Recent tabloid headlines revealing Argento in the embrace of another man seemed to provide a final impetus on that terrible June day.
It’s easy to blame the suicide victim for his decision, to label it, as we often do, as the most selfish act someone could commit. Neville doesn’t fall into this cliché. He certainly surveys the sizeable wreckage Bourdain left behind and the many people hurt by that decision, who remain visibly shaken two to three years later. But they, and we, come much closer to understanding it than we did in the days and weeks after June 8, 2018, when suicide-related think pieces proliferated.
When considering the why?, I thought of “A Little Bit of Everything,” the poignant 2011 song by folk rock band Dawes, whose first verse dramatizes a halted suicide, and whose chorus recognizes the folly of searching for that one element that, if alleviated, could have brought the person back:
Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the mountains,
It’s the fog,
It’s the news at six o’clock,
It’s the death of my first dog,
It’s the angels up above me,
It’s the song that they don’t sing,
It’s a little bit of everything …
ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN, Director: Morgan Neville; Distributor: Focus Features; Rated R; Opens: July 16 at area theaters