Morgan Neville directed two documentaries I loved, “20 Feet from Stardom”(2013) and Academy Award-winning, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018). His latest documentary explores chef and world traveler, Anthony Bourdain’s life. Sadly, the movie does it’s subject disservice. Perhaps it would be impossible to make a film that didn’t turn into a guessing game about “why?” Suicide leaves everyone questioning motives and “what ifs”…turning us all into armchair therapists. Instead of focusing on the legacy Bourdain left behind, there’s an implication that his 2018 suicide could be blamed on a lover’s indiscretion.
Certainly, a documentary about a recovered heroin addict and self-proclaimed Outsider and Bad Boy, was never going to be your typical rags-to-riches affair. “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” does not claim to have the answers. There’s a tagline: The Journey Changes You. From dishwasher to cook to acclaimed author and celebrity, Bourdain’s journey changed his life. Many of his friends attest that his celebrity took a great toll. An adrenal junkie who traded drugs for international travel, Bourdain was always seeking the next adventure. His journeys changed him but the adage “wherever you go, there you are” is also true. He was himself, sensitive and troubled, everywhere he traveled. There are beautiful moments in the film where Bourdain seems blissful. But then he’s packing his bag…and off he goes to give his all to the camera and to his fans.
Neville captures the impetuous nature, the arrogance and obsessions. Bourdain is often filmed, back to the camera, gazing out at the world. Pensive. His fellow chefs, one of his wives and many collaborators discuss his life and how he seemed to be on a journey of self-discovery. And because he lived so publicly thru his many books and his travel shows, the public felt they knew him. His many admirers were shocked by his sudden death and some felt a betrayal. How could someone who lived such a life and shared so much, be in such mental anguish?
Bourdain was a fascinating, complex man, and the film tries to highlight some of the obsessions (Jiu Jitsu) and his dreams (normal life; cooking for his family, being a Dad). So much of his life was lived in the public eye, and so many people felt they knew him. He was an inspiration to people all over the world and eventually, he had to retreat from it. He lived his final months secluded in a high rise rarely going out.
I enjoyed the film and the resulting outpouring of stories from those who knew him. I was particularly intrigued by the behind-the-scenes story from the photographer, Melanie Dunea who shot Bourdain nude holding a bloody bone. “Bourdain, My Camera and Me“, Vanity Fair, July 23, 2021. She too, felt she knew him and could sense his withdrawal and sadness.
There’s a great scene in the documentary where a fellow vanguard, the artist David Choe, decides to honor his friend by defacing a mural of Bourdain. As he creates his work of art, gleefully splashing paint everywhere, the eyes of the portrait seem to stare out at us. They are the eyes of one who pleads to be seen and known. It’s a beautiful image.
It’s not where you go. It’s what you leave behind…a Bourdain quote. I hope that those who treasure memories of this man will continue to honor him. To remember what he gave and not focus on his tragic demise.
3 1/2 bottles of French wine (out of 5)