“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” – “Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.” – Anthony Bourdain
“In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit. It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family.” – Anthony Bourdain
Anthony, a chef at Les Halles, shared a kinship with this restaurant, but in 2000, he found a bigger family, the world, through a tell-all book. He wrote a New York Times Best Seller, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, found a spot on Oprah’s couch, and hosted a 35-episode television show, “Anthony Bourdain’s a Cook’s Tour” (2002 – 2003).
The rest is history. Two other massively successful TV series, eight Primetime Emmy wins, worldwide fame, and look, once you play yourself on “The Simpsons” (1989 – Present), you’ve made it.
For millions and millions of devoted fans, they tuned in to 223 combined episodes of “No Reservations” (2005 – 2012) and “Parts Unknown” (2013 – 2018) to observe Bourdain’s travels around the globe and delicious meals that he relished. Still, most importantly, they wanted to watch him. This charismatic, outspoken New York City native had that intangible It-factor that magnetic stars possess. Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville – who made documentaries about Sidney Poitier, Brian Wilson, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, and Fred Rogers – serves up one about the aforementioned big-personality, small-screen star in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”.
In a July 12, 2021 Uproxx.com interview with Vince Mancini, Neville explains a key reason for moving forward with this doc.
“I’ve been making documentaries for almost 30 years, and I’ve made films about how culture connects us. I felt like Tony was like a fellow traveler. He was kind of a documentary filmmaker himself. I felt like I was starting at a place where I had some baseline understanding of the type of guy he was,” Neville says.
Since Bourdain spent countless hours on television and has been quoted in so reams of print and online stories, how do you sum up the man’s viewpoints in a 118-minute film?
In a July 15, 2021 ComingSoon.net interview with Tyler Treese, Neville describes the utterly enormous undertaking to collect all kinds of Bourdain data points to then distill the best, most vital moments for the film.
“I went through every article, book on tape, voiceover session, podcast, and I pulled out all the lines of anything that I thought were interesting things he said. And then I put together a binder of like 500 pages of things he said, and I organized them by subject,” Neville says.
Yes, several friends and colleagues speak about Anthony in “Roadrunner”, but when watching the documentary, it’s remarkable how often Bourdain narrates his film with a seemingly never-ending catalog of clips and voiceovers.
It’s by design.
“In a way, I thought about it like William Holden in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, that he’d be narrating it from beyond the grave. And I think Tony would have liked that, too,” Neville says in the same ComingSoon.net interview.
Compacting staggering sums of video and audio into two hours is one thing, but tonally, how do you make a Bourdain film when he suffered such a tragic end? He hung himself in Kaysersberg, France, on June 8, 2018, at 61.
This critic – who, admittedly, hasn’t watched a Bourdain television program – did not view this movie with a sense of doom. Most fans will view it differently, but the first 70 minutes primarily celebrates his meteoric rise to stardom as the picture arranges scores and scores of Bourdain clips, outtakes, and confessionals. The dizzying montage paints him as an ambitious, compelling free-spirit who finds himself standing in a muddled abyss but staring and stepping into a wave of colossal success.
Bourdain’s long-time producer Lydia Tenaglia says that before his television experience, he never traveled. In his mind, he did, but now, does “the reality match the imagination.”
During those very early TV days, it feels like Tony was the fastest drag racer in three rural Midwest counties, and suddenly, NASCAR plucks him out from Healy, Kan., and throws him in The Daytona 500 on Day 1. Meanwhile, Anthony circles the track and yells to his pit crew, “Do I just push the pedal to the metal?”
He moves at 190 mph (sort of) all over Vietnam and Japan and attempts to stay on his path, or better yet, find one. He does and eventually paves the way for Lydia and her husband/co-producer Christopher Collins.
Bourdain opines, “One minute, I was standing next to a deep fryer, and the next, I was watching the sunset over the Sahara. What am I doing here?”
Neville gives glimpses of Bourdain’s self-destructive inclinations during the movie’s first half, but this portion of “Roadrunner” is generally upbeat. He fills the hour-plus with the Anthony that fans probably know with additional slabs of his foundation via personal reveals from Bourdain and those who knew him best, including his ex-wife, Ottavia Bourdain.
The film alludes to Tony’s occasional wrath, but we don’t see it on-camera. That’s missing. Otherwise, his story seems complete, with primarily festive highs rising to a peak, and then the film’s second half follows his descent to the movie’s conclusion. Past addictions, depression, and a couple of specific life events seem to fuel his heartbreaking plunge, and the on-screen discourse is honest, raw, and emotional. Perhaps the film’s most difficult moment is – ironically – when his toddler-aged daughter, Ariane, plays on a swing, or when Bourdain voices self-harm, a spooky foreshadowing. It’s hard to say, but there’s no doubt that Bourdain’s exit from this world left a considerable void for so many. For those who knew him personally or only from TV, closure may never come, but this documentary will offer insight into his emotional travels.
This doc offers takeaways from Anthony’s missteps (including absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder) and his ultimate demise. Still, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” presents just about all sides of him, a self-proclaimed misfit who opened himself up to everyone, and the world hugged him back.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Morgan Neville
Starring: Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Bourdain/Ottavia Busia, David Chang, Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Tom Vitale, and David Choe
Runtime: 118 minutes