In the eyes of many, celebrity chef, author and traveller Anthony Bourdain had it all: the best job in the world, legions of adoring fans and a certain air of badassery that only a handful of people possess. He was effortlessly cool and lived a dream life — or so we all thought.
Documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a deep, intimate look at his ascension to worldwide fame and the unfortunate, abrupt tumult of his last few years. It’s a peek behind the curtain of a seemingly “Hollywood” existence, one that Bourdain simultaneously lived in and bucked against, to varying success.
Starting with his relatively nondescript childhood and working its way toward his eventual stardom, Roadrunner features candid interviews with friends, family and colleagues interspersed with jaw-dropping footage of Bourdain’s travels. Along the way, his voice narrates his own life, an incredibly powerful element that helps elevate the poignancy of the documentary. (In a recent interview, director Morgan Neville revealed that, in some instances, Bourdain’s voice was modelled using AI — a disturbing revelation that has received much backlash.)
So much of the movie features Bourdain looking out over astounding, boundary-less vistas, taking in achingly beautiful sunsets or mingling with locals in whatever city, and these clips are probably only just a taste of what he experienced during his life. It’s a wonder it didn’t become too much for him; Roadrunner hints that it may have.
What do you mean by that?
Before Bourdain was Bourdain, say circa 1999, when he wrote his life-changing New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” he was a chef in New York City for a decade, well-known in foodie circles. And because he didn’t fit that traditional “mould” of what a chef should be, he stood out from the pack, and this eventually led to a reluctant stardom.
Contrary to what you might believe, Bourdain had never been anywhere before. Though he longed to travel and often dreamed of far-away cities and remote villages, he was a New York boy and pretty much stayed within the confines of the state up until his mid-late adulthood. When his career took off, so did he (both literally and figuratively), but as Roadrunner shows, the man we saw on TV shows like Parts Unknown was not necessarily the real Bourdain. That was a TV depiction, a persona created for maximum effect — and being “that guy” took its toll.
While no one can possibly know the exact inner workings of his mind, it’s clear Bourdain ingested what happened around him in a very significant way. The documentary takes a fascinating look at the production of a No Reservations episode in Beirut, Lebanon during the 2006 war, and it captures the chef’s immense sensitivity and internal agony. What was the point of it all? He has since said in interviews that this specific trip “changed his view of the world.”
A later trip to Haiti gave him similar insights into the broader world, and in the doc, he says it changed him “fundamentally.” These staccato trips to war-torn and impoverished nations seemed to stain his psyche.
Are there any secrets revealed in the film?
No “secrets,” per se, but there is a lot of personal information about Bourdain revealed in the movie that only die-hards would know about. Never before has there been such a dissection of his intimate life; at times the documentary feels like intrusion, as if we’re talking behind a dead man’s back. Towards the end, the movie delves increasingly into speculation and gossip as Bourdain offered less and less on-camera. His relationship with actor and #MeToo pioneer Asia Argento takes up a latter portion of the film, making Bourdain appear as a lovesick teenager, pining for her love and attention.
Roadrunner seems to pin Bourdain’s worsening later-in-life depression on Argento, but then swiftly nixes that with a stern quote from one of his friends, who emphasizes that only Bourdain could’ve made the decision to take his own life.
For someone so enamoured with life’s dazzling displays, Bourdain is almost pitiful, smaller, shrunken in the final chapter, words I never thought I’d ever use to describe him. It’s heartbreakingly sad, a reminder that mental illness can overwhelm any of us at any time.
Does the movie address his death?
Throughout, there are mentions of his death, mostly little remarks here and there, but at the very end of the movie we hear from his closest friends and family about his suicide. Easily the saddest part of the film, in the many vignettes the interviewees are still absolutely rocked by his death in 2018. In a strange way, they all seem to understand what happened to Bourdain, referring to the “very high highs and the very ugly lows” of his last few years.
They knew he had descended into depression, but never thought — despite his lifelong tendency to make off-colour jokes and comments about “offing” himself — that he would take his own life. As one friend so eloquently puts it, Bourdain just had to stop running.
So what’s the bottom line?
Even if you know nothing about Bourdain, Roadrunner is a fascinating watch. Filled with breathtaking footage of places around the world, it’s an emotional documentary that’ll stick with you for days. Sometimes larger-than-life figures aren’t who you think they are, and underneath that camera-friendly facade is a troubled, lost soul, just searching for home.
‘Roadrunner’ opens in theatres on July 16, 2021. Please check your local listings for details.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.