The Unknown Parts — Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
I confess that I am not much of a foodie, nor have I done all that much traveling in my life. I certainly would love to do more (Japan’s been on my list for decades now), but the realities of work and expenses basically preclude a lot of what’s out there. Not having a companion to travel with is also something of a hinderance. It’s one thing to fly solo and meet friends in Las Vegas. It’s quite another to go to another country, one where you don’t know the language, and just try to figure shit out on your own, and on a budget.
As such, my knowledge of Anthony Bourdain was fairly limited before his 2018 suicide. I knew he was a famous chef, I knew he wrote “Kitchen Confidential,” I knew he had a show on CNN, and I knew he made animated guest appearances on The Simpsons and Archer, making great use of his very distinctive voice. But apart from that, I didn’t really know anything, because his world and mine were almost completely separate. I don’t indulge in fine or exotic dining, and I don’t watch travel shows, mostly because they’re just reminders of what I don’t have access to, and if I’m going to fantasize, there’s always porn.
But what I do know is how much of an impact his loss had on the world, and I do empathize with the emotional anguish that led to his final decision. Because of that, I wanted to get a better understanding of the man and the myth, which is why I took in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, a joint documentary project of CNN and HBO, directed by Morgan Neville, the Academy Award-winning auteur behind 20 Feet From Stardom and the criminally not nominated Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Through those previous works, Neville has shown an admirable degree of understanding of heroes sung and unsung throughout pop culture history.
Thankfully, Neville continues that trend here. The film is honest, brutally at times, as friends, family, and contemporaries of Bourdain share their impressions of the man, from the laudatory to the scathing. No one is afraid to say what they really thought of Tony Bourdain, showing alternating admiration at his career trajectory and anger at his death. It’s these frank reactions from his first two wives, his producing partners, his television crew, and his colleagues in the culinary industry that help to reduce the larger-than-life personality to his most bare-bones, human terms. For better or worse he was still a person, and Neville makes that truth a priority throughout the film.
It’s been a week since I’ve seen the movie, and two major themes still stick out. The first, to the film’s credit, is Bourdain’s yearning for normalcy. As someone who’s dealt with lifelong anxieties, I know exactly what it feels like when people describe his desire to be a good dad and enjoy the simpler things in life, slowing down, and relaxing. But in those rare moments where such an ideal is achieved, there’s the lingering fear that it’s all fleeting and somehow not entirely real, and so we push ourselves back into high gear to return to the familiarity of our own misery. There’s a quote that sums it up perfectly: “When you’re on the road, there’s nothing you want more in the world than to go home. And once you get home, there’s nothing you want more than to get back on the road.” It’s a restlessness born out of the insecurity of thinking that someone doesn’t deserve happiness, and it’s something I’ve dealt with my entire life. This film goes to great lengths to show that Tony felt it too.
On the flip side of things, the other memorable motif is one that doesn’t exactly shine. While the film makes it explicit that whatever happened to Tony, whatever drove him to suicide, he’s ultimately responsible for his own death, it also seems to heavily suggest that Tony’s late-stage relationship with Italian actress Asia Argento played a significant part. The last half hour of the film delves deep into their torrid affair, with particular emphasis on the ways Argento insinuated herself into Tony’s professional life as well as his personal, leading to creative differences while filming his show and the dismissal of several crew members who had been working with him for over a decade.
Argento has had her own issues, and while the film does highlight a positive in her passion convincing Bourdain to join the #MeToo movement and advocate against sexual assault, it also does its best to paint Argento as bringing out the worst in Tony as a person. Yes, there’s an explicit line about Tony doing this to himself, but it feels a bit hollow, more like the movie is covering its own ass from a legal standpoint. One interview sentence gives them plausible deniability if Argento were to sue for defamation, but a reasonable person could easily interpret the rest of the back third of the movie as all but accusing her of driving Tony to kill himself.
Neville also makes two creative choices in the film that are worth mentioning. The first is the catalog soundtrack. The film’s title is a reference to “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers, which is included in the film and trailer. You also get highly-regarded rock classics like “Marquee Moon” by Television. These are songs that are well known, but not exactly hits, more like treasures discovered by people willing to seek them out. There’s almost certainly a correlation between these deep cuts and Bourdain’s own career. And if nothing else, it’s just nice to hear GOOD music in a movie for once.
The second, and much more controversial, is the use of artificial intelligence. There are moments throughout the film where Bourdain’s voice appears to be narrating the proceedings, even when it comes to stuff where he doesn’t appear to be directly involved. In these moments, Neville makes use of an AI firm to simulate Bourdain’s voice reading passages that he previously wrote, but never recorded on sound or film.
From a technical standpoint, this is amazing, because you really can’t tell the difference between the real Tony and the computer one when the sound bites are put side by side. Neville has mentioned in interviews that Bourdain really liked the movie Sunset Boulevard, which is also narrated by the dead lead actor, so he thought it an interesting concept that Tony would have approved, and Neville does make clear that he got permission from Bourdain’s estate to do this.
From an ethical angle, it’s a bit muddier. Neville has faced a decent amount of backlash from critics and Bourdain’s own ex-wife over the usage, because it was not disclosed in advance. I can certainly see where they’re coming from on this, but personally, I don’t mind, in fact I think it enhanced the experience. I don’t know if I exactly buy Neville’s explanation, but the picture of Bourdain he paints throughout the film is of the type of person who would have enjoyed the gimmick, if nothing else than as macabre humor, a fun bit of dark comedy to have him talking from beyond the grave. And again, the use of the tech is so well done that I would have never questioned that what I was hearing wasn’t 100% real, so it’s very much to the filmmaking credit that it’s accomplished so seamlessly.
Like so many others, I’ve been to the very dangerous edge that Bourdain ended up on. I made it back, and my heart breaks for every single person who doesn’t. I watch films like Roadrunner because in the end they can only help us all get a better understanding of one another, and hopefully more and more people can recognize the signs and get those in such desperate straits the help they need. To that end, I think Morgan Neville accomplished his goal, letting myself and the rest of the world know the Anthony Bourdain we didn’t always get to see, telling the story of his last 20 years with empathy and honesty, even if the latter of those two aspects might have faltered a bit with regard to the AI and Asia Argento. If you’re a fan of Bourdain’s life and career, you likely won’t learn anything new, but you’ll be more than entertained. But if you’re like me, not knowing all that much about him, you can not only enjoy the person he was, but the lesson at hand to make sure the next Tony Bourdain doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you okay with the use of AI? What’s your dream travel destination? Let me know!