‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ is a Moving Tribute to a True Iconoclast

Image from ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ courtesy of Focus Features.

Though Anthony Bourdain’s history of depression and substance abuse was well-documented, his talent for joyfully sucking all the marrow out of life made his 2018 suicide a shock.

The globetrotting iconoclast’s sharp wit, incisive writing style, and authenticity made him globally beloved and admired. Bourdain was aware his life appeared enviable, telling The Guardian in 2017, “I have the best job in the world.” Reality, however, never quite lived up to his romantic ideals. “He was always going to set himself up for disappointment,” laments his friend and producer of many years, Helen Cho, in the new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.”

“Roadrunner” is directed by Morgan Neville, who beautifully explored the life and legacy of Mr. Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and fixed his lens on Iggy and the Stooges for the doc “Search and Destroy” in 2010.

“Roadrunner” truly comes into focus around the time of the publication of “Kitchen Confidential,” which resulted in the upending of Bourdain’s life as he knew it. Bourdain marveled at his success, ruminating, “One minute I was standing next to a deep fryer, the next I was watching the sunset over the Sahara. What am I doing here?”

Watching Bourdain’s TV career unfold during “Roadrunner,” it’s a surprise to see how shy and awkward he was during filming in Japan for the premiere episode of his first series, “A Cook’s Tour.” We witness his comfort level grow when filming moves to Vietnam.

The burdens of fame become apparent over time. He admits to becoming an agoraphobe. David Chang shares a story about Bourdain wanting to go to dinner but realizing there was no restaurant in New York City where he could find anonymity. Another friend divulges that, despite countless accolades for “No Reservations,” “The Layover” and “Parts Unknown,” “Tony began to question who is benefiting from these shows.”

“Roadrunner” features bountiful archival footage, including previously unseen material from “Parts Unknown,” pre-fame home movies, and various TV appearances. New interviews with friends and colleagues of the maverick chef and author offer additional insight, particularly into his mental and emotional state the year before he died. The film features insightful interviews with his ex-wife Ottavia Busia, close friends like fellow chefs Eric Ripert (who found Bourdain’s body during filming in France) and Chang, as well as musicians including Iggy Pop, Josh Homme, John Lurie, and Alison Mosshart.

Bourdain’s last girlfriend, Asia Argento, was not interviewed for “Roadrunner,” but it’s evident here that his friends feel she holds some responsibility for his anguished final year and untimely demise. They speak of his unhealthy obsession with the actress and her undue influence on “Parts Unknown” (Bourdain uncharacteristically fired his longtime cinematographer during the one episode directed by Argento).

It remains frustrating that a writer as sublime as Bourdain left no suicide note. We may never find out what motivated him to kill himself, but at the very least, “Roadrunner” grants us more time with an unforgettable cultural icon.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” comes to theaters on July 16.

Karin E. Baker

About Karin E. Baker

Karin E. Baker is a native Angeleno who loves the eateries, history, nature, architecture, and art of her hometown. When not exploring poke shacks in Kona, tascas in Córdoba, and konditoris in Malmö, she writes about food, culture, lifestyle and travel. She obsesses over comma usage and classic films and is always happy to find an excuse to open a bottle of champagne.
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