July 15, 2021 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”
In Brief: A compelling new film about the idiosyncratic television personality and cultural observer Anthony Bourdain asks more questions than it ultimately answers. Yet, it’s still an absorbing, highly watchable portrait of an immensely gifted man whose showy public personality masked a deeply troubled mind.
Before Anthony Bourdain became a best-selling author and popular TV host, he was a chef. Not a particularly distinguished one, he made no transformative contributions to American cooking, the way Alice Watters had at Chez Panisse with her locavore movement. Nor did he enjoy an A-List celebrity following, as Wolfgang Puck still does. While Les Halles, the New York City bistro he ran, was successful, it didn’t come close to occupying a place in the pantheon of eateries that critics fawned over or for which eager diners waited months for a 5:45PM table.
Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville's documentary, "Roadrunner," a Focus Features release
Bourdain was in his early forties when his career unexpectedly revved into high gear with the 2000 publication of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a defiant exposé of the New York restaurant scene of the 1990s. As an author he earned both the notoriety and adulation that had eluded him at Les Halles. A TV show, then many, soon followed. On camera his true appeal quickly revealed itself, further boosting his celebrity status.
What Bourdain offered television audiences was a seemingly limitless curiosity and passion not just for cuisine and dining, but also for exotic locales, run-down joints off the tourist path, unfamiliar ingredients and dishes, and above all for the breadth and diversity of humanity itself. He loved people and their stories at least as much as food, or so it seemed.
He was impatient, cheeky, painfully opinionated. Audiences willingly embraced him for traits they might have scorned in others.
This he combined with smart, irreverent cultural commentary that he delivered from the far corners of the globe with a sharp tongue and his trademark nonchalance. He might have been a cynic, but he was an enchanting one. He could be prickly, but not mean-spirited. He was impatient, cheeky, painfully opinionated. Audiences willingly embraced him for traits they might have scorned in others.
In 2018, at the age of 61, at the height of his fame and influence, Bourdain committed suicide, bringing his 20-year run as a celebrity and social observer to a sudden end. So, who really was Anthony Bourdain and why did he choose to check out at the peak of his notoriety? What were the dark forces that lay beneath his charismatic, compulsive personality? Morgan Neville attempts to answer these questions in this new documentary.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain both celebrates and examines the arc of Bourdain’s later life and career. The movie combines previously unseen footage from his four TV series and interviews from close friends – chefs Eric Ripert and David Chang – his longtime producing partners and co-workers, his devoted book agent, his ex-wife, and his former girlfriend Ottavia Busia, the mother of his only child.
Bourdain had a passion for exotic locales, run-down joints off the tourist path, unfamiliar ingredients and dishes
Those are just some of the subjects Neville sought out to assemble a detailed portrait of a complex man who displayed prodigious talent together with a hidden but apparently all-consuming destructive self doubt. The film makes it clear that he certainly harbored tremendous despair, even though audiences couldn’t detect it. One mournful thing that Neville allows us to see is that those closest to Bourdain also failed to recognize this struggle until it was too late.
Neville has fashioned a number of other lauded documentaries, notably the Oscar winner 20 Feet From Stardom, about the unheralded singers who back pop stars, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about the beloved educator and children’s TV personality Fred Rogers. As mesmerizing and commendable as it is, Roadrunner is not quite as satisfying as these two films. This might be due more to the fact that Bourdain himself is so hard to pin down, rather than any failure on the part of the filmmakers, proving only that it always was and still is Bourdain’s show.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Focus Features presents a CNN Films / HBO Max production of a Tremolo production in association with Zero Point Zero. Edited by Eileen Meyer Aaron Wickenden, Ace. Original Music by Michael Andrews. Produced by Caitrin Rogers, Morgan Neville. Directed by Morgan Neville.