Anthony Bourdain wasn't beloved because he got to travel around the world, eat wonderful things daily, and do it all on TV. His fans adored him because of his relentless curiosity, his graciousness at the dinner table, his witty, kind, and quiet confidence. Sure, there were moments where the New York chef turned bestselling author turned globetrotting travel show host was caustic or hungover on screen, but he always listened intently to his dining companions and consistently stood up for the underdog.
That’s why his death by suicide, in 2018, was so shocking. How could someone known for his infectious zest for life—who carried himself in such a kind-hearted way and inspired others to live life to the fullest—decide he didn't want to live anymore? No explanation felt right.
The existence of Roadrunner, an intimate new documentary about Bourdain’s life, impact, and final years, will be welcome news for fans who want to dig into these unanswerable questions while trying to square their understanding of Bourdain the public persona with Bourdain himself. But it’s also an opportunity for mourning: Watching interviews with his friends and collaborators, it's like they’re still processing his loss and real-time. Roadrunner is a must-watch and an immensely moving film, but it's also a challenging and at times gut-wrenching experience.
Directed by Morgan Neville, known for his compassionate documentaries on subjects like Fred Rogers (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) and under-appreciated backing singers (20 Feet From Stardom), Roadrunner treats Bourdain as a human worth defending, warts and all. Much like his 12-season-long CNN show Parts Unknown, which never glossed over the pain, conflict, and dysfunction he discovered in the places he visited, it’s not a sanitized look at an adored pop culture figure. As much as it shows Bourdain’s charm, his disarming sarcasm, and self-deprecating humor, it also dwells his moodiness, his sometimes casual cruelty, and even the way that the man could “be a real pain in the ass,” as one crew member put it in the film.
It also feels very intimate: Beyond the archival and behind the scenes footage that comprises the bulk of the narrative action, lending the documentary a fly-on-the-wall feel, it draws primarily from testimonies of friends and collaborators, including musicians like John Lurie and Josh Homme, fellow chefs like David Chang and Eric Ripert, producers and crew members from his days hosting A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations, his ex-wife Ottavia Busia, and his former boss at Les Halles. According to ABC, one of the first things Neville did at the beginning of making the film was compile every song Bourdain had ever mentioned on TV or in writing, ending up with a nearly 19-hour playlist full of cuts by Television, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the Modern Lovers, whose single “Roadrunner” gives the doc its title. While this is a small detail about the film’s soundtrack material, it shows Neville’s obvious attention to detail and emphatic approach to his subject
Rather than starting from the beginning of Bourdain’s life, and following him as he learned to cook, began using drugs, got clean, and eventually becoming executive chef at Les Halles, Roadrunner opens to find Bourdain at 40, on the verge of releasing his breakthrough bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential. At one point, we see him standing outside his restaurant chain-smoking, waiting impatiently for a shipment of seafood to arrive. “That’s why all chefs are drunks,” he said in the clip. “It’s because we don’t understand why the world doesn’t work like our kitchens.”
As the Kitchen Confidential book takes off and catapults him to appearances on Oprah! and The Late Show with David Letterman, we see him overwhelmed by all the newfound attention. “Anything that happens to me beyond that door I'm suspicious of,” he says, standing in his work’s kitchen and pointing outside. Even before he agrees to become the host of a new TV series called A Cook’s Tour, he’s grumbling in a home video: “When my fifteen minutes are up, I’ll be relieved.”
Bourdain’s 15 minutes of fame never expired; it would last roughly two decades, and require him to adjust to greater and greater levels of celebrity. During A Cook’s Tour, he evolves from a shy, lanky chef into the Anthony Bourdain fans know and love: complicating the role of the TV travel host by writing monologues that reflected his counter-cultural sensibility and not acting like a tour guide but focusing on fully understanding each new destination as the cameras followed behind. These sections are particularly illuminating for the revelation that before his TV gigs, Bourdain had rarely ever traveled outside of the United States. Seeing his evolution is stunning, which seems to be what his brother is talking about when he says that with fame, Bourdain “died and was reborn.” (His rising star also coincided with the dissolution of his first marriage.)
Neville said that while making Roadrunner, he and his team collectively watched 10,000 hours of footage from Parts Unknown’s archives, Bourdain’s home videos, and other media. Some of the clips are breathtaking. There’s a 2006 episode of No Reservations, filmed in Beirut, where Bourdain and his crew accidentally find them in the middle of a war from the comfort of their hotel pool. The experience radicalizes him, especially when he refuses to exploit the situation for an episode but his network overrides him. “So many of the countries we had visited were dealing with the fallout of what America had done,” Parts Unknown director Tom Vitale explains about an episode on Laos.
More than the political righteousness that would shape his later career, footage of Bourdain at home with his daughter in the film is extremely emotional and heartbreaking. In those private clips, he seems truly happy swimming in the pool, grilling brats, fishing, and watching TV with his kid. We even see him show his daughter his guest star appearance on Yo Gabba Gabba!, a cameo unimaginable for pre-fatherhood Bourdain. But he couldn’t escape his fame or his workaholic tendencies in his limited downtime. “He couldn’t be home for a day and not be Anthony Bourdain,” says one friend in the show, referring to how fans would constantly stop him in the street for an autograph.
After Bourdain’s divorce from his second wife, the film takes a darker turn. His demeanor around his coworkers begins to flatten. A friend receives an email from him that reads: “You and I are successful, but are you happy?” In one of the most upsetting segments in the film, David Chang breaks into tears as he references a particularly cruel thing Bourdain said to him.
Roadrunner presents a portrait of a man who put 100 percent of himself into everything he did, whether that be his career as a chef, his job as a TV host, or his obsession with things like classic films, New York punk, and jiu-jitsu. And sometimes, that passion became untenable. The treatment of Bourdain’s last relationship, with the Italian filmmaker and actress Asia Argento, makes for uncomfortable viewing. Though Bourdain, while alive, spoke breathlessly of his love for her, his friends and coworkers in the film paint a more unsettling picture.
While Argento was not asked to participate in the film, her presence is palpable throughout the final third, from Bourdain’s late-in-life involvement with the MeToo movement to her direction of the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown, which put her and Bourdain at odds with his crew. The documentary reveals that Bourdain unceremoniously fired his longtime cinematographer Zach Zamboni, a regular on Parts Unknown, after Zamboni challenged Argento’s creative direction. (Zamboni does not appear as a talking head in the film). Chronicling the days leading up to Bourdain’s death, the film mentions the publication of a tabloid story that Argento had been seen in public with another man. The inclusion of this fact, and the speculation behind Bourdain’s reaction to it, feels voyeuristic and arguably superfluous. The film thankfully makes sure to say that Bourdain’s suicide was his decision and his alone but it’s not hard to feel queasy about how the film invasively handles the events leading up to his death. Given subsequent revelations in the story of the pair and their involvement in the MeToo movement, which isn’t included in the film, the whole thing feels less cathartic than just tragic and irrevocably messy.
Roadrunner is a film that takes cues from its subject. There’s compassion throughout, but no definitive, cut-and-dry answers. We don’t get to know why Bourdain died, nor do we deserve to. And while the film provides many illuminations about Bourdain's life and personality—that of a complicated man who tried his best but couldn’t divorce his love for humanity and his ceaseless curiosity from his addictive nature—these moments don’t provide closure. They shouldn’t. Bourdain was his best at digging into nuances: finding the deliciousness, the resilience in the face of adversity, and the heart in places that deserved more. This documentary does the same thing.