Many foodies hold a culinary reverence for Anthony Bourdain, the troubled chef with a bad boy in the kitchen attitude who skyrocketed to fame as a television personality. Bourdain seemed to have it all – a gorgeous girlfriend, a dream job where he got paid to travel to exotic lands and eat his way around the world, and the adoration of hundreds of thousands of devoted fans. That’s why it came as a shock to most people when he committed suicide in the summer of 2018.
“Roadrunner” doesn’t exploit Bourdain’s death, nor does it explore the “why” as much as it should’ve. Director Morgan Neville chooses to keep things more respectful and celebratory by interviewing the friends and family who knew the subject the best. His story is told with intimacy through their admiration and grief in a series of uncensored and emotionally charged discussions that are blended with archival footage, audio book excerpts, and home movies. As a result, the film is a lot like having an intense cry. It’s mentally exhausting and painful, but your soul will feel cleansed by the end.
Neville’s documentary is crafted with a skilled precision. There is a ton of information presented, but it’s organized in a flowing fashion so that the film doesn’t feel long. It begins with a brief history of Bourdain’s rise as a chef, spending the most time on the most important milestones in his life: the publishing of his New York Times bestselling book “Kitchen Confidential” in 2000, and his work for CNN on the popular food / travel show “Parts Unknown.” Neville offers a behind-the-scenes look at the production of this cable program, as well as exposing plenty of red flags that offer a haunting hindsight of what was to come.
Bourdain was a celebrated television personality, but he also was a very flawed, very complex man. For decades he struggled with internal pain, quietly suffering with mental illness and the remnants of an addiction that he picked up from years of working long, strenuous hours in city kitchens.
Bourdain was an irreverent cultural icon beloved by many, yet he was unable to see or believe it. “Roadrunner” doesn’t focus on the eventual tragic outcome, but shows the effects Bourdain’s suicide had on the people he left behind. This documentary is a complicated look at a complicated man, and serves up a chance at closure through an appropriate celebration of his life.