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“Here’s a little preemptive truth telling: There’s no happy ending.” That’s Anthony Bourdain, sounding cheerful, unmistakable and eerily prophetic. Lifted from a cornucopia of footage, his voice welcomes us into the opening scenes of “Roadrunner,” a restless and anguished new documentary that proves to be as much about his death as it is about his life.
You can understand why. Arriving three years after Bourdain, the celebrated chef, writer and world traveler, died by suicide at the age of 61, the movie doesn’t just politely explore or recount or even eulogize. As directed by Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”), it scratches, seethes, grapples and sometimes flails, as if it were desperate to make sense of an outcome that still feels raw and unresolved. That’s a testament to the millions of people all over the world who watched, read, followed and loved Bourdain, and who remain not just shattered but mystified by his death, by the absence of someone who always seemed so insistently, voraciously alive.
Those who knew Bourdain best, several of whom are interviewed here, have their own questions as well as answers. Neville introduces them in a literal setting-the-table montage — a fitting introduction for a celebrity profile that sometimes plays like a collective seance, with a touch of the too-late intervention. There’s as much exasperation and fury as there is affection in these remembrances (“He committed suicide, the f—ing a—hole!” one interviewee sputters at the outset), offered up with the unspoken acknowledgment that Bourdain himself wouldn’t have wanted anything less than an honest response.
Bourdain's own savage honesty and self-lacerating wit helped propel him to unexpected literary stardom with the 2000 publication of his dishy, revelatory and wildly successful memoir “Kitchen Confidential.” In offering up an unauthorized, bracingly unsanitized look inside the world of restaurant kitchens, Bourdain, then a 44-year-old chef at the Manhattan brasserie Les Halles, may have bitten the hand that fed him (and fed everyone). But he also revealed a remarkable talent for writing, storytelling and, perhaps most important, reinventing himself. He was the lowly disgruntled cook who became the bestselling bad-boy whistleblower who became the world-traveling TV personality who became something greater and more unpredictable still: an epicure of the people, a debunker of cultural myths and assumptions, the consummate global outsider-as-insider.
Neville and his editors, Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden, carve and shape the footage with a hurtling momentum that echoes the one-thing-after-another rush of Bourdain’s own career. Their story begins, fittingly, right around the moment when people started following him around with cameras. It’s tremendously moving to see the young Tony Bourdain, tall and lanky as ever but darker of hair and greener of spirit, hanging around his kitchen and an apartment whose rent he could barely cover at the time. (He shared it with Nancy, his first wife, to whom he was married for 20 years.) And it’s marvelous to relive the early days of his success, all the more so because the movie doesn’t simply leap from milestone to milestone; at every turn, it uses his achievements to cut its way back to the heart of who Bourdain was.
And who was he? A chain smoker, a brilliant writer, a recovering drug addict, an incurable romantic. Also not the easiest of colleagues, and not a natural TV host at first, per his longtime producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, who began working with Bourdain on the Food Network series “A Cook’s Tour.” But before long the paradoxical key to his onscreen persona emerged: He had the rare ability to magnetize the camera’s attention and then displace that attention onto the people he was meeting, the food he was eating, the places he was exploring. He was both a strong, forceful personality and an admirably self-effacing one, an authority renowned for his humility and approachability. And his growing curiosity about the world — before working in TV, he hadn’t traveled much — dovetailed with a heightened awareness of its injustices and the specific role of food in that political-cultural ecosystem.
The show itself became the catalyst and the conduit for Bourdain’s own soul searching, undertaken with loyal behind-the-scenes collaborators — including Tom Vitale, Morgan Fallon, Helen Cho and Michael Steed — who speak with warmth and candor about Bourdain’s perfectionism, his controlling streak and his irascible brilliance. They talk about his intense cinephilia, the way he fashioned certain episodes of his shows, including “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” as tributes to classic movies. (“Apocalypse Now” looms heavily over an early “A Cook’s Tour” episode devoted to Vietnam, one of Bourdain’s favorite destinations.) Elsewhere, the documentary lingers on a few episodes — a 2006 shoot in Lebanon that coincided with conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, a 2011 trip to post-earthquake Haiti — that led Bourdain to a profound reconsideration of how his work could either reinforce or challenge the status quo.
That creative evolution transpired alongside similar convulsions in his personal life. His first marriage ended, and in 2007 he wed Ottavia Busia, with whom he had a daughter — a life-altering experience for anyone, but especially for Bourdain, who never thought he’d be a father. Bourdain’s personal and professional evolution is charted with acuity and insight. Well-known chefs like Éric Ripert and David Chang describe the joys and frustrations of his friendship. We get a sense of someone whose exhilarating highs — an extraordinary new career, a beautiful new family — were answered by crushing lows, including the challenges of being on the road for more than 200 days a year. If “Roadrunner” has a thesis, it’s that everything about Bourdain, from his outsized success to his fear of mediocrity, was rooted in serially addictive patterns. Drugs or no drugs, he had a way of turning every new interest into an all-consuming obsession. (Busia, a mixed martial artist, recalls how intently Bourdain threw himself into Brazilian jiu-jitsu.)
After their marriage ended, the movie theorizes, Bourdain found his last and most destructive obsession: the actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, who became his romantic partner and creative collaborator (she directed the 2018 Hong Kong episode of his series “Parts Unknown”). She also became a prominent if not uncontroversial figure in the #MeToo movement, and her searing sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein galvanized Bourdain into his own ferocious, no-holds-barred activism. That activism is regarded mostly with skepticism here by his friends and colleagues, who dismiss it as the byproduct of his blind loyalty to a lover who would prove both emotionally volatile and flagrantly untrustworthy.
It was at this point, incidentally, that I found myself not entirely trusting “Roadrunner.” Bourdain’s advocacy may well have been motivated by love (incidentally, a lot of worthwhile advocacy is). But there’s something troubling and distasteful about the way this documentary trivializes it, leaving behind a whiff of misogyny that grows more pronounced with the not-so-subtle collective insinuation that the woman Bourdain loved was effectively to blame for his death. The filmmakers would likely argue that they’ve insinuated no such thing; one colleague takes pains to reassert that Bourdain alone bears the responsibility for his actions. But the subtly accusatory tone of these passages speaks louder than anyone’s words. So does the conspicuous absence of Argento, who isn’t interviewed.
Those who are interviewed remember their friend and colleague with an intense commingling of grief and rage, best expressed by a sequence in which a mural of Bourdain is defaced by the artist David Choe, one of his longtime friends. But that anger is also its own expression of love, and the fact that it all feels so unprocessed and unfiltered is what makes this movie such a strange and sometimes troubling gift to its audience. For two hours it places Bourdain’s voice alongside the voices of those who knew him, as if they were still able to converse on the same spiritual plane. There’s beauty and solace in that illusion, even if the movie can’t — and maybe shouldn’t — begin to answer the unbearably sad question that haunts every frame.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.