Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide is recalled by the public just as vividly as the loss of Robin Williams several years previously. Bourdain was a divisive but magnetic, even lovable figure. Millions of people were inspired by his books and TV shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown. At the same time, accusations of entitled cultural tourism and a grating, callow manner were just as insistent in his life. Roadrunner is a documentary on the cook-turned-professional-traveler’s storied life and it does not overtly favor one view of the man over the other. Instead, it challenges the viewer to form their own view with a warts-and-all portrait.
Morgan Neville’s documentary begins in earnest in 2000 when Bourdain hit the big time with a bestselling book. Was his persona affected much by his modest life transforming overnight? Maybe. How did the somewhat shy Bourdain get the role of television host, anyway? From there, the film explores the deeper undercurrents of Bourdain’s real personality through the words of family, friends and colleagues (among them John Lurie, Eric Ripert, and David Chang). The real Bourdain was a romantic who never traveled much before his success as a writer, finding his escape mostly in cinema and books. He blustered but was at the core insecure; he could be cruel to his closest friends but was also capable of real kindness.
It is fitting that Bourdain’s life would be turned into a movie, since he himself was a devoted lover of cinema and music. Roadrunner is peppered with film clips and songs from Bourdain’s own playlist of favorites. In fact, some of the most arresting moments in Neville’s documentary come out of these references. The doc opens with clips from 8 ½ and The Seventh Seal jumbled amidst an avalanche of clips from Bourdain’s life, all set to the song “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers; his second marriage falls apart to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s unforgettable “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”; Bourdain and Asia Argento walk together in sun-drenched southern Italy, intercut with Monument Valley in widescreen via John Ford’s film The Searchers.
Although we already know how this story ends, we still want to take the journey. The end was not the sum total of the man’s life—but that’s the takeaway for any life.
Directed by Morgan Neville