Morgan Neville’s last film was Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a 2018 documentary about Mister Rogers. His newest, out tomorrow, is Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. In theory, the two subjects don’t have much in common, aside from having lengthy careers in television. One was the kindly, cardigan-wearing host of a long-running children’s show who chatted with puppets and sang gentle songs about being a good neighbor and learning to manage difficult feelings. The other was a tattooed, foul-mouthed former chef who ostensibly traveled the world in search of good food but was really on a quest for adventure and maybe something else that even he didn’t quite understand.
But they both demonstrated the values of curiosity, of listening, and of kindness and compassion. Bourdain, however, seemed incapable of showing any of that kindness and compassion to himself. (What would Mister Rogers have said to him?) His story, as just about everyone who will watch the new film already knows, was a tragedy—and if you don’t already know that, Bourdain will tell you so in the introduction. Neville isn’t interested in exhuming all the gory details, though: he wants to, as he tells one of his interview subjects, find out what made Bourdain the way that he was through, yes, curiosity, listening, kindness, and compassion.
Anthony Bourdain is a great subject for a documentary. Not only did he have a great screen presence—he was always fascinating to watch, even when he was just sitting quietly in repose, gazing off at the ocean or the desert or the Antarctic snow—but much of the last third of his life, from about 2000 on, when Kitchen Confidential became a bestseller and he began filming A Cook’s Tour, was captured on video. In an interview with IndieWire, Neville said that he and his crew combed through more than 10,000 hours of footage, both the stuff that made it onscreen and outtakes, and didn’t come close to exhausting the Bourdain archive. But all that material really comes in handy: it’s really quite something to hear a story from one of the talking head interviewees—longtime members of Bourdain’s production crew, his ex-wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, and the chefs, artists, and musicians who were among his closest friends—and then see it exactly as it happened.
The first two-thirds of Roadrunner is exhilarating. If you want to learn about Bourdain’s childhood and kitchen years, you’ll have to look elsewhere: this film, as the title implies, is about Tony the traveler. Neville picks up the story when Bourdain is 43 years old, still a working chef at Les Halles, his restaurant in New York, but just about to publish Kitchen Confidential, which will change his life completely. There he is, still dark-haired and looking impossibly young, gleefully discussing his evolution from mediocre chef to celebrated author and the new book deal that will allow him to travel the world, having adventures. He has no clue what he’ll find—aside from a few childhood trips to France and a work trip to Tokyo, he hadn’t traveled much—but he’s high on the romance of it all. Finally, he’ll come as close as a modern American possibly can to fulfilling his childhood dream of being a pirate.
Before he set off, two young newlywed producers, Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, impressed by Kitchen Confidential and what they’d seen of Bourdain in TV interviews, contacted him and asked if they and their cameras could tag along on his travels. And thus was born the Food Network show A Cook’s Tour and Bourdain’s career as a TV star.
Part of Bourdain’s appeal was how appeared so natural on camera: “your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there,” as Helen Rosner put it in her New Yorker obituary. But that did not come naturally. The first stop on A Cook’s Tour was Tokyo, and it was an awkward and miserable experience for everyone involved. Tenaglia and Collins were still relatively inexperienced at making TV, and Bourdain had never hosted anything before; he seemed to think he should be explaining, like other, more conventional travel show hosts, and it was painful to watch. Bourdain would occasionally wander away from the camera in disgust.
But they all learned quickly. In Vietnam, Collins and Tenaglia discovered the winning formula of letting Bourdain loose to ask people questions and fulfill his own curiosity about the soul of a place instead of blathering out guidebook facts about a country he’d just literally landed in. Ah! you think, watching Roadrunner, there he is! (Perhaps for this reason, Vietnam remained one of Bourdain’s favorite places, as you can see in the Hanoi episode of Parts Unknown.)
After that, he evolved quickly into the Tony we loved. There are the motorcycles! The fast cars! The stunts! Éric Ripert! OMG, the food! The talking and laughing over restaurant tables all over the world! And then there’s another Tony we never saw on TV, in iPhone videos at home, being a goofy, uncool dad with his and Busia-Bourdain’s daughter, Ariane, whom he clearly adored. Did anyone ever have a better life than Anthony Bourdain?
The high, of course, didn’t last. In his 20s, Bourdain had been a heroin addict and even after he got clean—cold turkey—he still had the addict’s personality, bouncing from one obsession to another: friends, lovers, his daughter, countries, songs, jujitsu. The travel began to wear on him—not just the demands of life on the road, but the things that he saw: the bombing that disrupted the No Reservations shoot in Lebanon, the starving people in Haiti who fought each other for leftovers after an interview, the Vietnam War refugees he met in Southeast Asia, the violent, bloody heart of darkness of the Republic of Congo. After every shoot, Bourdain and his crew would go home. Their work would be shown on TV. It would win awards. They would all make lots of money. Bourdain would become a celebrity, unable to walk around his Manhattan neighborhood undisturbed. But what about the people who he talked to, who made up the heart of the show? He toyed with the idea of disappearing from Parts Unknown entirely, becoming an invisible eyeball.
In one lengthy scene with a psychotherapist, parts of which appeared in the Buenos Aires episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain confesses that he cycles through moods rapidly and unpredictably, from “everything is okay” to wanting to harm someone, or maybe himself. He wanted to be happy. He wanted to be able to look out the window and say, “Hey, life is good,” the way he appears to do in so many episodes of his TV shows. “Do you want to change?” the therapist asks. Bourdain stops, considers for a few moments, and then looks very sad. “I suspect it’s too late.”
As time went on, the darkness came closer to the surface and became impossible to hide, even on TV. (During the shooting of what would be the final episode of Parts Unknown in Alsace, France, director Tom Vitale tells Neville he could see the genuine despair in Bourdain’s eyes.) David Chang, the Momofuku chef and one of Bourdain’s close friends, claims that Bourdain’s favorite song was the Brian Jonestown Massacre dirge “Anemone.”
In the final year of his life, he was obsessed with both his new girlfriend, the Italian actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, and supporting her work in the #MeToo movement, to the detriment of his relationships with his friends and longtime production crew. After a disagreement between Argento and his longtime director of photography, Zach Zamboni, during the filming of the Hong Kong episode of the final season of Parts Unknown, which Argento directed, Bourdain fired Zamboni.
And then he became unkind, not just to the crew, which were used to him being difficult, but to the people he interviewed: During that same episode, he interrupts a young refugee who is trying to explain, quite earnestly, how he has lost hope in the world so that the table they’re sitting at can be repositioned. The young man, cut off mid-sentence and told to “hold that thought,” looks bewildered and close to tears.
(Neville did not interview Argento for Roadrunner; he told IndieWire that he was afraid that speaking with her would alienate the rest of Bourdain’s collaborators. I can’t judge him for this. When you’re telling a story that depends on the cooperation and trust of other people, sometimes their wishes supercede yours.)
When the relationship with Argento began to fall apart, Bourdain’s despair, his friends say, was palpable. Tenaglia and Collins offered to put Parts Unknown on hiatus so he could stop traveling for a while and rest and spend time with his daughter. They and the rest of his friends tried to let him know he was loved; they knew how much it cost him to admit he was not okay. But that’s the thing about depression: no matter how much and how often and how many people tell you they love you, you will never believe them.
This story could have been told in a way that’s maudlin and sentimental. Bourdain, of course, would have hated that. He was a romantic, but he also took great pains to see things as they were. (And that, his friends say, may have been part of his trouble: nothing ever measured up to how he imagined it would be.) Neville pays his subject the great honor of forgoing all the St. Anthony bullshit that sprang up after his death. This is an honest portrait, not hagiography.
Someone asked me if this movie would make them cry. Maybe? If you’re prone to crying at movies, or to sympathetic tears when you see other people cry, you will cry. But there’s plenty of joy in Roadrunner as well—a lot of it just from the pure pleasure of getting to see Bourdain again.