‘Roadrunner’ Captures Anthony Bourdain’s Global Travels and Inner Struggles

There are many moments in the “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” documentary where friends of the late Anthony Bourdain describe him as a romantic. The same could be said about the documentary itself, in the sense that much of it feels like a romantic quest. Bourdain began his career as a cook and chef, attaining fame with that great first book of his, “Kitchen Confidential.” He ended his life as a global citizen, having traveled thousands of miles and visited every corner of the world as a TV personality, tasting its many flavors and historical scars. There was always fragility to Bourdain, an inner sadness evident in the close-ups. When someone of his stature decides to end their life, the questions are endless. Director Morgan Neville structures this piece with the same searching spirit that drove his subject, celebrating his feats, while unafraid of looking at painful truths.

The first portrait “Roadrunner” paints of Bourdain is the cook as writer. While he may have been eternally devoted to the art of the kitchen, Bourdain always had a gift for words and a love for literature. He was also a born rebel with a Punk aura that channeled into the writing of “Kitchen Confidential,” his eloquently scrappy testimonial of life in the restaurant world. Yet even though by the time he published the book Bourdain had survived heroin and undergone many adventures, he was actually a shy personality that had only traveled as far as France (only because his father was French). Life would take a sudden change when TV producing couple Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins decided to pitch Bourdain as the lead for a traveling show, “A Cook’s Tour,” where he would taste different cuisines, while soaking in local culture. It would be the first of several programs that would culminate in CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which would forever cement Bourdain’s place in pop culture as representative of an idea beyond cooking, but of erasing artificial borders. But the more he traveled, the more Bourdain faced his own inner restlessness, which created a vortex where relationships would swirl and break, before he decided to commit suicide in 2018.

“Roadrunner” achieves a special tone that gives it an impact beyond a celebrity biography. Neville tells Bourdain’s story like that of a 21st century Arthur Rimbaud or Lord Byron, if the Romantics had lived in the age of TV and iPhones. As in his books, we get the impression Bourdain loved the kitchen out of a love for its craft but also because of the outlaw identity it helped him cultivate. There’s actually little discussion about cooking in this documentary, more emphasis is given to Bourdain’s eclectic view of life and love, fueled by a passion for epic literature and cinema. He didn’t just like Joseph Conrad and “Apocalypse Now,” he breathed their ethos. Of course, unlike some of his heroes, he did benefit from a bit of modern luck, like the fact that he scored a book deal because one of his friends happened to be married to a major publisher. What he wasn’t ready for was the access the book’s success would grant him for new experiences. Bourdain may be famous now for his welcoming, rebellious persona, but Tenaglia remembers his first taping in Japan, where he practically froze when interacting with others, unaccustomed to having to be open. He would learn fast, and a first casualty of his sudden rise to prominence would be his first marriage to Nancy Putkoski, which after 30 years shattered a belief in young love.

Neville has always excelled at taking lives and using them to frame bigger pictures. His great 2015 documentary “Best of Enemies,” revisited the 1968 TV debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. to trace the ideological roots of our modern-day cultural clashes. In 2018 his “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” profiled Fred Rogers as a symbol of civility for an era where we have none. “Roadrunner” tells Anthony Bourdain’s story as that of a man wandering our modern world as it changes him. One day he’s the executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan, the next he’s with a camera crew in Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli invasion, watching bombing raids from a hotel and frightened children describe their homes destroyed. He tastes coffee in Vietnam that “kicks Starbucks’s ass” and listens to war stories from a family in Cambodia. For many of these moments Neville lets Bourdain’s own recorded narrations give the images depth, like a travel diary. Listen closely and you can sense Bourdain’s literary influences in his choice of words. Neville also features insightful interviews with “Parts Unknown” crew, who speak like former members of a great renegade crew or tight team. 

“Roadrunner” does real justice telling Bourdain’s story by not shying away from tough questions and its darker, nonetheless human edges. Friends and colleagues describe a highly intelligent, caring man who seemed to be chasing after something while also running away from something else. He never overcame many insecurities going back to a working class childhood, and a telling monologue by Bourdain confesses embarrassment at having been an angry kid raging against the ordinariness of his life. The world became his escape, to the point where a second marriage crumbled because it couldn’t survive his schedule of traveling 350 days a year. He would make friends like Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who could relate to his love-hate relationship with constantly leaving home. Other friends like artist David Choe now look back with palpable sadness at how the signs were always there in Bourdain’s morbid humor, constantly joking about suicide and death. Maybe the grim realities of the world had an impact as well on his sensibilities. While taping in Haiti, Bourdain is so shaken by the poverty around him that he tells the crew to give away any excess food, which provokes a rush of fighting locals. To become an internationalist means to truly learn about the struggles beyond your own borders. 

The more challenging and controversial sections of “Roadrunner” deal with Bourdain’s relationship with Italian filmmaker Asia Argento. Per the interviews Neville gathers, it began as an attraction between two gritty, rebel souls. But was it good for Bourdain or Argento? Feeling frustrated over the demands of his work and like he couldn’t be the best father to his daughter Ariane, it seems like Bourdain found in Argento an object of obsession. A revealing clip clearly shows her uncomfortable with his smothering ways and when the usual director of “Parts Unknown” gets sick, Bourdain instantly pushes for Argento to direct the episode, which annoys his loyal crew when she tries to run it like a film set. By the time Bourdain would make his fateful choice in France Argento had been photographed with a new partner, and the emotional turmoil reportedly was taking a great toll on Bourdain. Friends remember him projecting, sometimes cruelly towards them.

Despite the sad ending most viewers will be aware of when walking into “Roadrunner,” it is an exhilarating, absorbing documentary. Here is a life that for a while was driven by a special idealism that can feel as if from some bygone era. At the same time Neville’s film celebrates the importance of getting to know the world, even if you can’t travel. For a long time Bourdain lost himself in reading about other places, until life gave him a chance to see them. What made his shows so special was that he wasn’t a stereotypical American tourist, only visiting a spot for its food and beaches, but to know the people and their history. He did it with the spirit of a Punk poet, but with such a void that he looks sad when Iggy Pop tells him on camera that what gives him the greatest thrill these days is feeling loved. “Roadrunner” is about Bourdain, but it’s also about that urge to get away and see it all, in the hopes of discovering who we really are, no matter what we find.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” releases July 16 in select theaters.