Capturing the evolving fascinations of one of the world’s most renowned television hosts, Roadrunner from Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, peels back the layers of the sometimes-gruff, endlessly empathetic celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain. Released just three years after his death, the film chronicles Bourdain’s time in the public eye: from the release of his breakout book, Kitchen Confidential, to his tragic death by suicide. Guided by interviews with his creative partners, friends, and loved ones, the film lays out an extensive and personal look into Anthony Bourdain as a rising star and as a man struggling to find his place in the world. With years of footage and voice overs at the filmmakers’ disposal, Roadrunner puts fans of Bourdain’s shows back in the familiar space of tackling controversial topics with a sympathetic, human tone.
The film begins with a home video from Bourdain and his first wife, Nancy Putkoski, as he crafts his first book with a cigarette in hand. “One minute I was a cook and the next I was an author. It literally happened overnight,” Bourdain says as a montage of television appearances and book tours kicks off. As he prepares to write his next book, A Cook’s Tour, Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins reach out to see if he would be interested in making it into a television series on The Food Network. Bourdain immediately says yes, despite having no background in television and very little travel experience. We watch him work through the discomfort of filming his first episode, revealing the shy, anti-social side of the man who would be known as a legendary personality. These scenes are humanizing and we see how much he had to grow to become the person that we met on television. As he finds his footing, he realizes that the most important thing he can do is to experience the cultures he enters with the authentic wonder of a man living his dream to see the world.
Many of the interviews with his friends and family reveal that a lot of Anthony Bourdain’s worldview was based on the romantic scenes from his favorite books and movies. This romantic view is challenged in scenes where his crew is forced to take shelter in Beirut as conflict breaks out along the Israeli border and in Laos when he tries to give food to poor villagers and ends up igniting a brawl among starving children. There are many times when you see Bourdain question who benefits from the shows he makes. It’s a powerful question from someone who seems to be living their dream and it sheds light on Bourdain’s overall dissatisfaction.
Watch the official trailer for Roadrunner here:
As he continues his travels, he meets his second wife and has a child, something he previously had never thought he would do. His search for happiness and the questioning of whether or not he could truly be loved is at the forefront of his mind as he becomes more well known. A heart wrenching interview with his friend, David Choe, shows that he was constantly wondering if he could be happy while pursuing success. In a series of asides in his hometown, Bourdain gives a candid recount of his early experiences with heroin. His addiction at a young age manifests itself in obsessions and he makes it clear that he believes no one was going to save him except himself.
A noticeable omission from the interviews is his last partner, Italian actress, Asia Argento. Producers and creative partners point out that the last years of Bourdain’s life felt manic, with him bringing on Argento to direct an episode of his show and firing his longtime cinematographer while shooting in Hong Kong. Argento eventually leaves Bourdain for someone else. He’s crushed and that questioning of whether he could be happy or loved creeps in. “Tony hadn’t been alright for a long time,” one of his friends says.
The fallout of his suicide resonated around the world. Poems and letters were placed in front of Les Halles, the New York City restaurant where he got his start. Murals were painted and tributes were given, but his friends and family felt angry. He left behind a daughter and in his last year he lashed out and projected insecurities onto his friends. Their processing of grief is tied to a man who could not believe he was loved. Their anger is laced with a wish that he would have been open about his mental health. These final interviews highlight the many dimensions to the man and get us closer to him than we ever got before.
Roadrunner has all of the familiar elements of watching Anthony Bourdain grow as a person throughout different cultures and experiences. If you enjoyed his shows, you’ll really enjoy this film. It highlights his commitment to showcasing the world for what it is and reveals his struggle to know what happiness feels like. It is not productive to search for meaning in a tragic death, but learning from his life is an invaluable gift that Anthony Bourdain gave the world.
“I think it’s the least I can do to see the world with open eyes,” – Anthony Bourdain
Roadrunner is playing now in select theaters and can be rented on Amazon and YouTube. Find showtimes and more ways to stream here.