For all that we know about the peripatetic life and untimely death of Anthony Bourdain – and despite a very on-the-nose, let’s-talk-about-it quotation from the celebrity chef and travel writer in the opening scene of this documentary – he does not come across in Roadrunner as a suicidal personality.
Complicated? Yes, but aren’t we all? Shy? Sure, but with that common trait many shy people have of hiding the feeling beneath a veneer of affability that makes them look just the opposite of reticent and retiring.
In fact, the most fascinating parts of Morgan Neville’s new documentary explore how he went from being an executive chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles to a globetrotting media darling, hosting food and travel shows and writing about his journeys right up to his suicide in 2018 at the age of 61.
After the success in 2000 of his non-fiction book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, he was offered his own show, A Cook’s Tour, on the Food Network. But to hear his friends and creative partners tell it, the endeavour started poorly, with Bourdain sullen and withdrawn about the job.
Eventually he managed to figure out television, and created a larger-than-life persona for the small screen. This he eventually dialed back to something more like himself. But it took time and effort from all involved.
Neville has documented famous dead people before, including Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley (Best of Enemies), Orson Welles (They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead) and Fred Rogers (the multiple award winning Won’t You Be My Neighbor). He casts a wide net with Roadrunner, interviewing friends, collaborators (celebrity chef Eric Ripert fits fully into both categories), Bourdain’s second wife, his brother and many more.
And while Bourdain’s death is front and centre in the film’s final act, the overall tone of the work is celebratory. That said, it doesn’t shy away from the man’s darker aspects, which included an addictive streak that once manifested itself in heroin use, later swapped out for ju-jitsu and, in one bizarre episode late in his life, a passion for parallel parking.
The film veers expertly between weirdly entertaining and darkly surreal. There’s Bourdain in Saigon, eating a beating cobra heart. (A fan of the film Apocalypse Now and its literary inspiration, Heart of Darkness, he thrilled to visit Vietnam and Africa.) There he is in Beirut, cooling his heels at the hotel pool when a war broke out during his visit in 2007. And on a visit to Haiti, his kind-hearted desire to feed a group of kids turns into a near riot.
As to The End, well, Neville covers it well without sensationalizing or sentimentalizing. Most of the interview comments are simple and to the point. “That is something I don’t talk about,” Ripert tells the camera evenly. Someone else wonders: “How does a writer check out without leaving a note?” And there’s plenty of anger, best summed up in an emotional interview with fellow chef and close friend David Chang: “He let me down.”
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain opens July 16 in theatres.
4 stars out of 5