The term “larger than life” can be overused but it certainly applies to the late Anthony Bourdain, the bad-boy, rock-star chef turned celebrity author turned reality TV mainstay who owned the room the moment he entered, who traveled the world in search of exotic and magical and sometimes harrowing experiences, who grabbed life by the fistfuls for decades — and then took his own life, a tragedy that continues to haunt and infuriate and confound his friends and loved ones three years after the fact.
In the insightful and exhilarating and profound and sometimes deeply sad documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” the gifted director Morgan Neville (who delivered a reverent but honest look at another American TV icon, Fred Rogers, in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) takes us on a journey through the last two decades of Bourdain’s life, from his star-making 2000 book “Kitchen Confidential” through his wobbly first foray into reality TV through his whirlwind years of starring in such shows as “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations,” “The Layover” and “Parts Unknown.”
As you’d expect, there’s a seemingly endless supply of footage of Bourdain, either through clips of his shows or off-camera outtakes, as he seemed to spend much of the 2000s and 2010s being filmed. (He traveled some 250 days a year.) “Roadrunner” also includes invaluable interviews with Bourdain’s longtime producing partners, as well as friends such as musicians John Lurie and Alison Mosshart, chef David Chang, artist David Choe and Bourdain’s second wife, Ottavia Busia, all of whom are still reeling from the loss of their friend and in some cases still angry at Bourdain for leaving without so much as a note. (“He committed suicide, the f—ing ass—-,” says one friend.)
“Roadrunner” details how Bourdain, who was executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan, wrote a long email to a friend about his adventures in the kitchen, and the friend showed it to his wife, who was a publisher — which led to the publication of the bestselling “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” (2000). Just like that, the ruggedly handsome, authentically honest, telegenic Bourdain was on Oprah’s couch and was getting recognized on the streets of New York and was embarking on a television career that would take him to locales around the world as he fearlessly sampled warthog, goose intestines, sheep testicles, pig neck bones, bile soup and even the still-beating heart of a cobra — but these were not “Fear Factor”-type endeavors. Wherever Bourdain traveled, he had an insatiable curiosity about not just the cuisine but the culture and the people. He was our tour guide on an amazing, seemingly nonstop journey.
This was the double-edged sword in Bourdain’s life. As the documentary makes clear, Bourdain, who battled heroin addiction in his younger days, was a thrill-seeker, an obsessive personality, who always seemed to be in search of the next amazing experience, the next high, the next unforgettable adventure. There are glimpses of some rare moments of quiet domesticity, when he was married to Ottavia Busia and they had a daughter and we see Bourdain fussing over a backyard barbecue like a regular suburban dad — but it was only a matter of time before he’d be on the road again, seeking to soothe his restless spirit.
The last segments of “Roadrunner” are devoted in large part to Bourdain’s relationship with the actress Asia Argento, and Bourdain voicing his support for Argento after she spoke out about being allegedly raped by Harvey Weinstein. Bourdain was over the moon about Argento — and devastated when the relationship fell apart. (Not that “Roadrunner” ascribes blame on Argento for Bourdain’s suicide. As one interview subject says plainly, Bourdain was responsible for his decision.) Anyone who was close to Bourdain knew he battled demons, and one can always wonder if one should have spotted warning signs, but as is almost always the case with a suicide, there’s no concrete WHY. Anthony Bourdain was a brilliant, passionate, troubled man who had tremendous curiosity about food, about places, about people. We are lucky he shared so much of that on camera for so many years.