“Roadrunner,” Jonathan Richman’s euphoric ode to cruising down the highway opens Morgan Neville’s latest documentary, a promise that this biopic of the late chef, writer, TV host, and raconteur Anthony Bourdain will be a celebration. It was a song the filmmaker should have passed on because that was a promise he was never going to be able to deliver. As he admits not long after Richman’s tune fades out, Bourdain’s is a story without a happy ending. In fact, Roadrunner is not so much a documentary as a dirge.
When Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the then executive chef at the New York brasserie Les Halles became an instant star. The book exposed what goes on behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens with swashbuckling wit – the tone of a writer who grew up a fan of the Burt Lancaster adventure The Crimson Pirate. In middle age, Bourdain found himself not just the author of best-selling books but a globetrotting media sensation, thanks to his shows A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown as well as his appearances on everything from The Oprah Winfrey Show to Late Show with David Letterman to The Daily Show. Even as he entered his 60s, his future seemed limitless – until he ended it, hanging himself in a French hotel room in 2018.
Neville, whose previous documentaries include the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom and the Fred Rogers biopic Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, frames his film as kind of an investigation into what led a man who apparently had everything to take his own life. Neville limns Bourdain’s youth and troubled life before he righted himself first in restaurant kitchens, then as the head of his growing media empire. He delves into the man’s insatiable appetite for acquainting himself with new cultures, new foods, and new adventures. And Neville covers Bourdain’s broken relationships, although only his second wife (and mother of his young daughter) Ottavia Busia participates. Notable by their absence in the postmortem interviews are Bourdain’s first wife (and high school sweetheart), Nancy Putkoski, and his last lover, actor/filmmaker Asia Argento, cast in the doc in a kind of evil Yoko Ono role.
Besides Busia and Bourdain’s younger brother, Chris, it is left up to Bourdain’s friends and associates in restaurant kitchens and the television world to fill in the blanks, supplemented by copious amounts of footage of Bourdain both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. One imagines it was cathartic for the people who sat down with Neville to talk about their friend, but actual insight is rare. We learn he could be cruel – one friend is brought to tears recalling how Bourdain once told him that he didn’t think his pal was capable of being a good father. (“Projecting,” the friend concludes.) In a moment captured late in his life, we learn how geeky Bourdain could be in a cringe-worthy moment where he prattles endlessly about Argento’s car parking prowess.
But for all the footage of Bourdain on screen, it is his voice that is truly missing. (So missing, in fact, that Neville made the ethically dubious decision to digitally fake Bourdain’s voice in a couple of scenes.) Even with the behind-the-scenes footage and home movie excerpts, what we’re privy to is a public persona. What he chose to reveal of himself in his writing and public appearances was carefully curated. Neville has set for himself an impossible task in seeking answers that went with Bourdain to his grave. We get prismatic glimpses of the man through the offered recollections, but the portrait remains incomplete. The filmmaker never gets as close to his subject as he did to, say, Fred Rogers.
Why did Bourdain’s marriages fail? Why did a man who embraced middle-aged fatherhood still spend 250 days every year on the road and away from the daughter he adored? Why did the man who was open and eager to experiencing everything life had to offer end that life so abruptly? Bourdain who seemed so knowable in life is unknowable in death – at least, in this documentary. The suicide that punctuates the doc remains as shocking as it was when it happened three years ago. But with that shock comes the realization that Bourdain deserves a better coda than this, one that doesn’t feel so hollow or so muck like gawking at the sight of a terrible car wreck. – Pam Grady