In the opening moments of “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a new documentary about the late television host and author, now playing in theatres, we hear the titular character’s voice state the obvious. “This does not have a happy ending,” he says.
For fans of Bourdain, the former heroin addict chef-turned-author-turned-television-star-turned-cultural-avatar, “Roadrunner” comes with high expectations.
The edgy but empathic Bourdain, who was 61 when he took his own life while shooting a television show in France, inspires strong feelings. A standard, hagiographic look at his life, rehashing the well-known details of his career, would be met with a collective yawn. Get too prickly and it might be seen as disrespectful to the memory of a man many still miss.
“Roadrunner” somehow straddles the line, providing a balanced overview of the scrappy chef’s personal and professional lives. Using outtakes from Bourdain’s shows “No Reservations,” “The Layover” and “Parts Unknown,” new interviews with friends and family and home footage, director Morgan “20 Feet from Stardom” Neville compiles a Russian nesting doll look of his subject.
What emerges is a deep dive into the life a complex man; a person who circled the globe dozens of times searching for meaning with every air mile point earned. “His whole personality was of a searcher,” says Alison Mosshart, the vocalist of The Kills and The Dead Weather. “He was always looking for something, and it was agony for him.”
Neville captures some of that agony, forcing the viewer to see familiar footage recontextualized by Bourdain’s co-workers and friends. With no shortage of material to choose from—Bourdain’s 250 days a year on the road were meticulously filmed and documented—Neville cherry picks moments that reveal the toll Bourdain’s schedule, celebrity and search for normalcy took.
Often the most revealing footage isn’t of the man speaking, but of the exhausted or melancholy look visible in his eyes as he performs for the camera. “Life was never going to measure up to how he pictured it,” says “Parts Unknown” segment producer Helen M. Cho. “He set himself up for disappointment.”
The circumstances of his death, of course, are investigated. His colleagues become tearful describing his last months as a lifelong addict who turned his addition to Italian actress and director Asia Argento. “Roadrunner” examines Bourdain’s final days but this isn’t a whodunnit or an exercise in pointing fingers. It’s a story about his life, not death.
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” provides an emotionally raw portrait of a gifted, charismatic man who travelled the world but never quite figured out where he needed to be. “You are not going to outrun or out smart pain,” comments artist David Choe, who provides the movie with a suitably Bourdain-esque ending.