Anthony Bourdain is fondly remembered in a heartbreaking retrospective of a great adventurer. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain takes an intimate look at a complex individual. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville explores his life from meteoric fame to shocking 2018 suicide in the French provinces. Bourdain’s friends, colleagues, the production team and his second wife, Ottavia Busia, speak openly about their tragic loss. But it is Bourdain’s own haunting words that best illuminate his hopes, dreams and struggles. He’s seen the world on a grand scale. It wasn’t enough to silence his personal concerns.
Roadrunner starts in 1999 with Anthony Bourdain at forty-three as head chef at the French brasserie Les Halles in New York City. Bourdain, a recovering cocaine and heroin addict who started out as a dishwasher in the kitchen, was in constant financial need. Philippe Lajaunie, the owner of Les Halles, comments that Bourdain always struggled to pay bills. However, he had a close relationship with his wife Nancy Putkowski and enjoyed writing extensive essays for his close circle of friends. These fruitful discourses brought Bourdain to a book store. “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” was an instant bestseller that put Anthony Bourdain in the spotlight. He was soon on book tours, the Today Show, and even Oprah Winfrey.
The film introduces its agent Kim Witherspoon, then Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, the married founders of Zero Point Zero Productions, who filmed Anthony Bourdain from the start. It’s fascinating to see him getting started on television. Tenaglia was stunned by Bourdain’s shyness. He was awkward and reserved in front of the camera. When she booked her first series on the Travel Channel, she found that Bourdain had never left the country. He had only read about distant countries and people. Anthony Bourdian’s early footage shows the concerted effort he put into his craft. He was not a natural, but learned through extensive written preparation to express himself on screen.
Anthony Bourdain became a household name with the success of “A Cook’s Tour” in 2002. The next decade was a whirlwind of fame, fortune, and extensive travel. Most significant was his courtship and marriage to the Italian martial arts expert Ottavia Busia. He amazed his brother, producers, and closest friends by becoming a father. Their daughter Ariane was born in 2007. The film shows unseen footage of Bourdain doing his best to be a father. Cooking was his connection to family life. But Bourdain spent two hundred and fifty days a year filming his various shows. He was largely absent from his family. This separation took an inevitable toll.
The chefs David Chang, Eric Ripert, the artist David Choe and the musician Josh Homme were close confidante of Anthony Bourdain during this phase of his life. They are discussing a man who has changed through the trip. His television series changed from a culinary to a lifestyle focus. After the harrowing filming in Lebanon and Haiti, Bourdain felt the journalistic need to show real people in countries that are often demonized by Western media. The footage from Libya, the Congo and Iran shows Anthony Bourdain in his most introspective form. This soul search, combined with his recent divorce, marked a change in his personality.
Lydia Tenaglia, his longtime directors and production assistants had big problems with Asia Argento. Bourdain was captivated by the Italian actress. He had a manic focus that drew attention to her interests. Asia Argento became an integral part of his globally popular CNN show “Parts Unknown”. She then went public as part of the burgeoning Me Too movement of her rape by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Bourdain, who had largely stayed away from social commentary, followed Weinstein with a fire blight. He had found a cause celebre, but it was born out of his obsession with Argento. The film is straightforward in that regard. The footage from the Zero Point Zero team showing disgust for Argento’s presence is pretty obvious.
Roadrunner‘s final act will move you to tears. It’s hard to see how those who worked, knew, and loved Anthony Bourdain wrestle with his suicide. Eric Ripert, who was filming with Bourdain in France at the time of his death, refuses to talk about it, others openly cry. He had a daughter who loved and needed him. They don’t understand how he could leave them behind. David Choe speaks in a particularly harrowing interview about his crushing sadness and anger at the glorification of Bourdain’s suicide. Ottavia Busia wonders in her last public comments what she could have done differently.
Anthony Bourdain speaks openly throughout the film about his early embrace of the rock star ethos. He rebelled against a good junkie upbringing. He thought you couldn’t be really cool without suffering. In his most poignant vignette, he admits that he had a great life and was fortunate enough to be loved. Depression is a dark cloud that blocks hope. It’s disturbing to think that he was so lonely in his final moments.
Help is available around the clock through the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800) 273-8255. Please call if you feel hopeless and alone. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is produced by CNN Films, Tremolo Productions, HBO Max and Zero Point Zero. It will be released in theaters on July 16 by Focus Features.
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