It is considered useful, even enlightening, and therapeutic to think about death for a few minutes a day.Anthony Bourdain
Growing up, Anthony Bourdain was on the family TV anytime we had the time, or there was a new episode of No Reservations. What drew us to him (and I’m sure what drew others to him) was his candor when talking to people and when talking about food. If he ate something genuinely horrendous, he’d let viewers know. The reason why this was endearing to the average viewer was in 2005 when his show No Reservations premiered; the average TV chef was this almost caricature of an actual chef, someone more interested in making sure the viewer was entertained rather than teaching the viewer about the language of food and how cooking can transform a bland sandwich to a sandwich you wouldn’t mind eating every day of your life.
All TV chefs are fun and cuddly. Maybe, I’m the antidote.Anthony Bourdain
I still remember the drop in my chest I felt when I heard that Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. I thought what everyone else thought: How could someone who travels the world meeting wonderful people eating wonderful food be depressed, much less commit suicide? It’s this reckoning of the soul that Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) comes into this documentary with but uses that question to ask another question: Just who is Anthony Bourdain? The picture Neville paints is of a man who couldn’t stop looking for the “normal” as well as the chef that everyone knows and loves. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a wonderful documentary that goes beyond the usual biographical documentary to return Bourdain’s legacy to inspire future generations to do what they love.
What the fuck am I doing here? I shall explain.Anthony Bourdain
All right, let’s address the elephant in the room. Anthony Bourdain’s voice is being “deep faked” multiple times throughout the film. Initially, I was going to write a dissertation on the ethics of faking a dead celebrity’s voice. But then, I thought back on the film itself and how Neville represents Bourdain, and I think there are far worse decisions made by Neville. For instance, there are key people like Asia Argento that Neville refused to interview, as he felt “like the complication and weight of her part of the story could capsize the film in a heartbeat. It’s so complicated. And I felt like it wasn’t actually going to teach me any more about Tony. Whenever I started to bring in more of the story, it just made people ask ten more questions, which weren’t interesting questions. They were just, like, What about this? How did that happen? Somebody else can make that movie.”, according to this GQ article. This flippant attitude towards what should be a portrait of who Anthony Bourdain was behind the scenes was off-putting and permeates throughout the documentary itself with oddly confrontational and baiting interviews where he provokes the people he’s interviewing into such quotes like “Tony was an asshole.”
That said, there is a lot of good Neville does with the direction of the documentary. The interviews quickly become a therapy session for those who have unresolved trauma or anger towards Bourdain by provoking the people he’s interviewing into a place of anger. These are people trying to process the pain of grief, and Neville makes sure every stage of grief is felt. By letting the viewer feel all the messiness that comes with trying to process the death of a loved one, the documentary is providing space for viewers to process Bourdain’s death during the final act.
What is normal for someone who creates?
All of this is supplemented by the main course, what most people will be seeing the documentary for: a deeper look at Anthony Bourdain, and my, oh my, is it a deep look at Bourdain. The documentary starts with Bourdain about to release his first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and goes all the way to the modern day. Not only that, but we get to see Bourdain formulating who he wanted to be as a celebrity chef, a writer, a father, and everything in between. Neville gets into the mind of a writer very easily, to the point where you feel as Bourdain does when he’s trying to get a VO session just right so that he can do it all over again year after year.
A major detractor to the viewing experience is the music by Michael Andrews. I’ve loved the music he’s provided for Bridesmaids, The Big Sick, Always Be My Maybe, and The King of Staten Island, but the direction Andrews goes here is quite odd. He goes for what can best be described as a “twangy vibe,” not unlike what you’d hear in an episode of No Reservations, but it feels a little out of place here, as the score often distracted from my enjoyment of the documentary.
Likewise, the editing by Eileen Myers and Aaron Wickenden is imbalanced. They have great moments, like a scene in which Bourdain is hunting ducks and each shot feels like a punch in the gut. In the rest of the film, the editing is very distracting, most prominently a cut from Bangkok to New York City that feels like whatever the cinematic equivalent of whiplash would be.
All in all, this film is not a documentary that celebrates Anthony Bourdain’s life. Far from it. If you’re looking for that kind of documentary, I’d look elsewhere. I’m sure someone on YouTube has made that kind of documentary. Instead, this is the kind of documentary for people who want to know who Tony was, focusing on his perfectionist tendencies and what “normal” even means.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is now available in select theaters.
Until next time!