Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
2021, R, 119 min. Directed by Morgan Neville.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., July 16, 2021
Popular indie musician Phoebe Bridgers has a song on her latest album called “Punisher,” about her hero, Elliott Smith, who died long before Bridgers could meet him. She wistfully sings in the chorus, “What if I told you/ I feel like I know you?/ But we never met.” For a long time, I contemplated if there was someone that important to me, someone I felt like I knew even though I never properly met them. Then, about 10 minutes into decorated documentary director Morgan Neville’s new film about Anthony Bourdain’s life and career, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Bridgers’ lyrics echoed in the back of my thoughts.
The late food writer, television personality, and chef was a popular figure that meant a lot of things to a lot of people, including myself. It’s hard to not pour my connection with Bourdain into this review, a man who changed the way I ate, traveled, and viewed the world so significantly. There is a distinct bond between the at-home viewer and the television host – an omnipresent figure who talks through the TV to you as if you’re a friend. Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Best of Enemies) captures why Bourdain was so good at this, so beloved by so many. Through interviews with colleagues, friends, and family, Neville’s able to paint a picture of Bourdain’s impact, a man whose romanticized vision of human connections permeated everyone he reached.
Through archival footage and talking heads, Neville paints a portrait of Bourdain’s sincerity. Roadrunner celebrates his groundbreaking career, how he sculpted his profound sense of cool, and showcases the immense amount of love and respect he had from the people close to him. It’s much more than a greatest hits reel, and depicts Bourdain at his most brilliant as often as it depicts him at his most melancholy. Yet the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from Bourdain’s messiest habits, or his mental health struggles with addiction. The Kitchen Confidential author was cursed with a romanticized view of the world, one where breaking bread and drinking wine at a table would make everything dark and tragic melt away: But in a heartbreaking outtake from an episode on Lebanon, Bourdain’s hopelessness starts to seep through the cracks, a bleak cloud hovering in the distance, unable to dissipate.
One might wonder if three years after his death is too soon for a documentary about a man who, in the end, took his own life. Neville doesn’t sugarcoat the tragedy, and the final act of the documentary clearly depicts Bourdain’s mental health deterioration and gives a safe space for those close to him to funnel their complex emotions about their loss: Ex-wife Ottavia Busia, chef companions David Chang and Éric Ripert, and artistic equals like David Choe and Josh Homme cry, scream, and pour out their love for their long gone dear friend. Neville is able to tell a story of grief through the most important figures from Bourdain’s life, and how the battle of accepting his death will never be easy or clean.
One of the hardest sections to watch is the “behind the scenes” of the heartbreaking Hong Kong episode of his CNN series, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, DP’d by the brilliant Christopher Doyle and directed by Bourdain’s final partner, actress Asia Argento (who is notably missing from the documentary). Neville is able to dive into the psyche of Bourdain’s last year as well as he can, carefully editing interviews and outtakes to connect that it was Bourdain’s addictive personality that ultimately broke down his mental health. His work here is akin to that of Asif Kapadia’s on Amy: a harrowing account of how depression can absolutely ruin even the most romantic of humans.
In the final reprisal of Bridgers’ chorus, she changes the tone of her song. “It’s for the best,” she muses, the crushing knowledge that meeting your idols is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Bourdain was a true inspiration, and the sting of his passing still lingers. With Roadrunner, Neville is able to give the icon a send-off that’s tear-inducing and loving, a gift to those who will always be inspired by him.