Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
This emotional documentary isn't without its missteps, but still simmers with the celebrity chef, author and travel documentarian's passion and curiosity.
October 21, 2021
When Anthony Bourdain strode around the world, and across our screens, in food-meets-travel series A Cook's Tour, No Reservations, The Layover and Parts Unknown, he was as animated as he was acerbic and enigmatic. Beneath his shock of greying hair, the lanky New Yorker was relatable, engaging to a seemingly effortless degree and radiated a larger-than-life air, too. The latter didn't just apply because he was a face on TV, where plenty gets that bigger-than-reality sheen, but because he appeared to truly embrace all that life entailed in that hectic whirlwind of travelling, eating and waxing lyrical about both. Arriving three years after his suicide in 2018, documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain captures that. It's so filled with Bourdain thanks to all that time he'd spent in front of the camera, it'd be near-impossible for it not to. But it also lurks under a shadow due to its now-infamous choice to use artificial intelligence to add dialogue that its subject didn't speak.
Watching the film, there's no way of knowing which words Bourdain merely penned but didn't utter; the technology truly is that seamless. It still resounds as an unnecessary move, though, especially when such lines might've been incorporated in ways that wouldn't sit at stark odds with his visible liveliness. Roadrunner delves behind the facade that Bourdain presented to the world, of course. It notes his death immediately and goes in search of the sorrow and pain that might've led to it, as mulled over by friends such fellow chefs David Chang and Éric Ripert, and artist David Choe; crew members on his shows; and his second wife Ottavia Busia. Still, once you know about the AI, there's a sense of disconnection that echoes through the doco — because it surveys all that Bourdain was, compiles all of this stellar material and still resorted to digital resurrection.
Thankfully, the passion and curiosity that always made Bourdain appear so spirited — yes, so alive, as compared to being vocally recreated by AI after his death — still makes Roadrunner worth watching. That's true for Bourdain fans and newcomers alike, although director Morgan Neville (Oscar-winner 20 Feet From Stardom) doesn't use his two-hour-long film as a birth-to-life primer for the uninitiated. Crucially, as also proved the case with his 2018 Mr Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Neville jumps through the details of Bourdain's life in a way that also muses on what his success and popularity said about the world. Why he struck such a chord is as essential an ingredient in Roadrunner as how he went from cook to celebrity chef, TV host, best-selling author and travel documentarian.
The footage of Bourdain — from his shows, obviously, as well as from a plethora of TV interviews, behind-the-scenes clips and home videos — is edited together with the same restlessness that the man himself always exuded. You don't spend most of your year travelling if you can be easily pinned down, after all. It's a wise choice on Neville and editors Eileen Meyer (Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution) and Aaron Wickenden's (Feels Good Man) parts, but Neville has long had a knack for making his films feel like his subjects. Talking-head chats are spliced throughout, offering further details and grappling with how Bourdain's story ends; however, Roadrunner is repeatedly at its finest when it's peering at him and showing how his work encouraged us all not just to watch, but to eat, travel, think, talk and live.
That said, those interviews aren't merely filler. With Chang and Choe in particular, they show Bourdain's friends confronting the type of grief that doesn't ever fade. Biographical documentaries about famous figures who are no longer with us inherently offer the same kind experience to the masses — giving viewers the opportunity to reflect upon their central figures, all while gifting us with more time in their presence — and seeing Chang and Choe struggle so openly cements that parallel. If only Roadrunner was as sensitive when covering Bourdain's relationship with actor Asia Argento, his girlfriend before his death. Argento isn't interviewed but, in the film's second poor choice, its search for a reason behind Bourdain's suicide makes an uncomfortable and overt swerve in her direction.
Whether made now or after more time had elapsed since his passing, a film about Bourdain was always going to be complicated. The big, obvious, easy draw — spending longer with him on-screen — is there for all to see, and delightfully so. It's bittersweet, naturally, because there's no divorcing all those images and soundbites from the reason that this movie even exists. It's heartwrenching as well, a sensation heightened every time his upset, angry, frustrated pals make appearances. It's thoughtful in pondering what Bourdain gave the world, and what it took from him in return. It's also messy because there are no answers to much that it contemplates, and also because it sits under a cloud sparked by that superfluous AI.
As its title plainly states, Roadrunner is indeed a film about Anthony Bourdain, though — and, even with its missteps, it recognises the complexity of that task. It really didn't need to put his words back into his mouth to make you wish his tale, and his life, was still simmering; that's what it was always going to plate up regardless.