Why did he do it? That’s the question that anyone who’s ever been touched by the hungry, life-force spirit of Anthony Bourdain will have at the top of his or her head going into “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” Directed by the award-winning Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”), the documentary, which premiered tonight at the Tribeca Festival, is an intimate and fascinating portrait of the beloved celebrity chef and television globe-trotter. It is also, inevitably, a spiritual investigation into why his life ended. On June 8, 2018, Bourdain hung himself in his hotel room. Three years later, it’s still shocking to think that his name could be included in the same sentence with the word “suicide.”
We all know that suicide, too often, is a cruel mystery, that it has a way of mocking our need for “why.” (Bourdain was a brilliant writer who left no note.) We also know that people who are bursting with brilliance and passion, love and success — people like Anthony Bourdain — can carry demons around that they don’t reveal to the outside world, or maybe to anyone. Yet Bourdain still seemed a special case. He presented himself as an open book (quite literally in “Kitchen Confidential,” the superb inside-the-restaurant-world memoir that made his fame), and he forged his celebrity not just by taking great big bites out of life, but from the way that he put his demons right out there — as entertainment, as therapy. He seemed to turn a certain jaded streak of burnt-ash cynicism in his nature into a weapon for defeating his own despair.
Every celebrity projects an image, but Bourdain, the disarmingly literate bad-boy punk rock star of the restaurant world, was a compulsive truth-teller who scraped the fakery off every encounter. That’s part of what made him such a great TV star — his eagerness to go around the world and broadcast his honest responses to every meal, every situation, every human being he encountered. His appetite (for food and drink, for experience and pleasure, for wit and words and connection) seemed boundless; in his irascible down-the-hatch way, he seemed to love humanity and to love this life. So yes, his suicide seemed inexplicable, and we go into this movie hoping that it will shed an essential light on why.
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It does, but not in the way you expect. The cliché I had in my mind is that Bourdain, by the end, was secretly depressed, that he was drinking far too much, and that the heightened media glare brought on by his romantic but troubled relationship with Asia Argento, as she become a controversial spokesperson for the #MeToo movement (which he did too), overwhelmed him. To a degree, all those factors were at work. But the story told by “Roadrunner” is richer, darker, and stranger.
Instead of coming on as an archival look back at Bourdain’s life, the film begins where “Kitchen Confidential” left off — with the birth of his celebrity. There’s a wealth of footage of Bourdain, since TV camera crews were always shooting him, and the film includes plenty of home-video footage as well. We see him in 1999, doing his executive-chef-as-badass-taskmaster routine on the sidewalk outside Les Halles, the Park Ave. steak haven where he ran the show. (Complaining that the fish guy is late, he says, “That’s why all chefs are drunks. It’s because we don’t understand why the world doesn’t work like our kitchens.”) And there is footage shot in his apartment as he’s writing the memoir, with no idea of how it’s going to blow up.
Bourdain was by then in his early 40s, tall and handsome in a louche Romanesque way, a chain-smoking motormouth hipster, but with a rabbity grin of disarming sincerity. As anyone who has read “Kitchen Confidential” knows well, he was an extraordinary writer, with a voice that was like Tom Wolfe cut with Howard Stern, and the movie briefly shows us how that book came to be (it all started with a rantingly eloquent email, which a friend of his showed to his wife, who was a publisher). The book took off like a rocket, riding the first wave of the celebrity-chef revolution. Bourdain, serving up his nightly steak au poivre, hadn’t been a star of the restaurant world the way that Emeril or Mario Batali were, but his book, with its confessional tales of his heroin addiction and the-kitchen-as-jungle, made him the inside-dope icon of that world.
And then, just as quickly, the idea of making him over into a TV star, one who would travel to different exotic tasting locales, came to the fore. After several rocky episodes, it connected. Bourdain was born to do it. “Roadrunner” devotes itself almost entirely to his life on the road from 2000 on. It captures the enthusiasm with which Bourdain embraced his fame, and the high-maintenance joy he took in becoming the guru-host of “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations,” and “Parts Unknown.” The film is more than an inside look at the making of those shows, though we do get the heady flavor of them, from the knowing gloss on “Apocalypse Now” that held a Congo episode together to the way that a military blowup between Lebanon and Israel turned a visit to Beirut into a skittery nightmare to the foodie-fear-factor extreme element, as when Bourdain, in Vietnam, gobbles down the still-beating heart of a freshly killed cobra.
More than that, though, the film presents a psychological, almost novelistic portrait of how Bourdain evolved as a person during the years of his celebrity. The perks of fame can change anyone, of course. But what was unique in Bourdain’s case is that he was a high-flying personality — an addict, a sensation-seeker, a reckless rebel who craved experience — who had found a way to ground himself in the nightly demands of working in restaurant kitchens. The kitchen was his home. It gave him structure and purpose, a place to play out his obsessive nature. And once he became a TV star, his life as a chef got left behind. The home was gone.
He transferred the obsession over to his shows, schooling himself in how to be the audience’s token curiosity seeker. He approached reality TV like an art form, and turned it into one. His first marriage, to Nancy Putkoski, collapsed, but he got married again (to Ottavia Busia, who’s interviewed in the film) and they had a child, which he had never expected to do. For a while, he was on top of the world. We see him cooking sausages on the backyard barbecue like a ’50s dad, and he says that it’s the happiest he’d ever been.
Until it wasn’t. Bordain, whose heroin addiction is an element of his legend (in part because of how unapologetically he pursued it), had cleaned up his act by the end of the ’80s. He stopped being just a talented fuckup, and that’s the story told by “Kitchen Confidential.” But he remained, at heart, an addict, and “Roadrunner” captures how the constant travel (over 200 days a year) filled the hole in his soul. He was like the George Clooney character in “Up in the Air,” living an untethered flyover existence patched together out of his search for the next high. He was no longer grounded. And when his family life collapsed again (even after his embrace of fatherhood), it was as if in the guise of saying “I can’t hack normality” (which carried an anti-bourgeois defensive cool edge) he was really saying, “I can’t hack life.” He became an acerbic, intoxicated, new-sensation-seeking Nowhere Man.
“Roadrunner” is full of good stories — from Bourdain’s chef pals, like Eric Ripert and David Chang, from the producers and the loyal crew he shot his shows with, and from musician friends like Iggy Pop, John Lurie, Josh Homme, and Alison Mosshart. What emerges is that Bourdain, though he commanded the room and always looked like the star he was (he could hardly walk a New York block without being approached by someone wanting a moment), was also a a “big nerd” whose insecurity was a projection of his judgmental nature: He gazed at the world with scalding eyes, and expected it to scald him back. He was a perfectionist, a junkie hedonist, a creature of strong attitude but weak identity.
In “Roadrunner,” the ultimate why eludes us. How could a man so beloved, who gave so much pleasure, whose life was so much about pleasure not find his way out of the darkness? To ask that question is to be haunted by it. Yet Bourdain, without resolving it, says something early on that is very zen and very Anthony Bourdain. “I realized,” he says, “that one thing led directly to the other. Had I not taken a dead-end dishwashing job, I would not have become a cook. Had I not become a cook, I would never have become a chef. Had I not become a chef, I never would have been able to fuck up so spectacularly. Had I not known what it was like to really fuck up, that obnoxious but wildly successful memoir I wrote wouldn’t have been half as interesting.” And had it not been half as interesting, he wouldn’t have become so addicted to tasting the far ends of the earth that he melted down his sense of self. Bourdain’s death was a tragedy, but “Roadrunner” suggests it was a tragedy with a touch of destiny.