Anthony Bourdain liked to say he “lucked” his way from “a dead-end dish washing job” in a restaurant “to cook to chef,” and from there to memoirist and TV host.
It looked like a charmed life, a bookish wordsmith and on TV, “this unmuscled James Bond who could swan into a scene” and rakishly master it with a laid-back cool and world-weary savvy.
He left cooking Behind to become “a traveler,” in the way novelist Paul Bowles defined it. Not a tourist, but someone who drifted in, observed, ate and conversed and in the end absorbed the essence of wherever he went.
Bourdain had “the best job in the world,” and knew it — hosting travel and food series after series, his fame growing with each passing show. His dry, casual pose and Raymond Chandler/Joseph Conrad/Hunter S. Thompson narration, intentionally conjuring up memories of a favorite film, “Apocalypse Now,” underscored his mystique and amplified his cool.
And then he killed himself on June 8, 2018.
Maybe we’d noticed his “thousand yard stare,” or fretted over his drug history and self-described “addictive” personality and how that fit into his infatuation with a damaged and beautiful Italian filmmaker/film star. Bourdain talked about death on the shows, and even more in the outtakes, because, as he relates in “Roadrunner,” the new documentary about him, “It’s considered useful, enlightening and therapeutic to think about death for a few minutes a day.”
When it came, it was still a shock.
With “Roadrunnner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville (“Twenty Feet from Stardom”) gives Bourdain the cinematic wake he deserves. That’s the only good thing we take from suddenly losing someone close, or someone we think we know. We get together and take account, give a reckoning of who they were through anecdotes, share kfond memories and sometimes bitter or telling reminiscences. That’s what “Roadrunner” does.
Neville talks to ex-wives and old friends, culinary colleagues and Bourdain’s assorted TV producers, directors and production staff. And he calls on decades of archived TV footage — chat shows and “Bourdain at work and at home” TV feature stories, his many travel series and generously sampled outtakes — to paint a portrait of the artist as a young cook and later as a mature, graying traveler, falling in love with Vietnam, embracing the dangers of the Congo and wrestling with his own “Heart of Darkness” all along the way.
We hear from the publisher, the wife of a close friend, who discovered him and talked him into writing “Kitchen Confidential,” which he called his “obnoxious but wildly-successful memoir.” We learn how a couple of prescient TV producers, Lydia Tenaglia and her husband Christopher Collins, heard about a follow up book that would send the almost untraveled Bourdain abroad, and convinced him that could be a TV show.
And we hear the moment where the shy, obsessive craftsman in him figured this TV thing out. He’d “fix it in the edit,” take over the writing of the voice-over narration on these travelogues, and do his best Philip Marlowe or Captain Willard of “Apocalypse Now,” mimicking novelist Raymond Chandler or screenwriter John Milius with a smoky, worldwise growl.
“I’m the ugly American, the Quiet American, the hungry ghost” who walks Saigon, looking for a new culinary or cultural experience.
It’s a terrific and affectionate film, much more reflective than the tributes CNN whipped together right after Bourdain’s death. Bourdain’s many artist and musician friends (John Lurie, David Choe, Alison Mosshart, Josh Homme) point towards his real ambition, to be one of them. It also helps explain the way he gave up cooking and his first marriage shortly after “Kitchen Confidential” blew up.
“I cruelly burned down my previous life in its entirety,” he admitted. “He was reborn,” producer Collins explains.
We get a sampling of what it was like to work with someone this mercurial, and his friends can be blunt in discussing his failings. But his silly feuds with other TV chefs are barely brushed upon, his cooking and food philosophy isn’t critiqued by impartial observers and his frequent plugs for the international eateries of his “friends” (some he might have just met) aren’t touched.
I once ate at a Bourdain endorsed restaurant “of my good friend” in Dublin, and gave serious thought to how much of a TV fraud the guy really was.
Still, he wore his pose with grace and ease. “The Simpsons” gave him the best self-mocking self-description of all, or at least the best that he didn’t write himself.
“I’m food ‘bad boy’ Tony Bourdain. There’s nowhere I won’t go and nothing I won’t eat…as long as I’m paid in emeralds, and my hotel room has a bidet that shoots champagne.”
And while “Roadrunner” — it takes its title from a Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers tune — doesn’t speak to Asia Argento, the much-vilified last love of Bourdain’s life, it gives us plenty to consider in why he ended it. That level of TV fame can make the world which he so reveled in exploring “close in” around him.
Through it all, our tour guide gave off the sincerest vibe that he was at home everywhere, that money and fame were things he could take or toss aside, and that while he was taking it all in, he never took himself all that seriously.
MPA Rating: R, for language (profanity) throughout (smoking).
Cast: Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Bourdain, Eric Petit, Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Tom Vitale, John Lurie, Alison Mosshart, David Chang, Josh Homme, Philippe Lajaunie and Helen M. Cho.
Credits: Directed by Morgan Neville. A Focus Features (CNN Films) release.
Running time: 1:58