Being in the public eye and living an apparently idyllic life doesn’t make someone immune from battling their own internal demons. Losing anyone to suicide is incredibly painful, and that applies also to celebrities who are household names and recognized by many around the world. It can come as a particular shock when a person projects a true sense of self and amiability, inviting audiences into a world that was clearly much darker than they let on. The premature death – and incredible life – of chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain is a prominent example well worth this fully engaging cinematic showcase.
At the time of his death, Bourdain was well-known as the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, traveling the globe to meet both people and their food. He had gained prominence not only for his culinary prowess but also for the ease with which he spoke to the camera and made those watching feel like they were a part of his process, joining him for a nonstop expedition to explore what cooking, dining, and communicating looks like all around the world. This film dives much deeper into the history of his ascent to fame, and how he changed and developed along the way.
It’s astonishing just how much footage of Bourdain addressing a recording camera exists, and he almost feels alive still throughout this entire film, whether it’s reading contemplative lines out of a book he wrote or communicating the sensations he is feeling when trying a new food or wandering an untraveled place. Rarely does the subject of a documentary get to tell his own story after his own death, with moments that feel genuinely unscripted collected from so much of his life. That’s a testament both to his gregariousness and to the stellar editing in place that makes this feel more like a series of interviews with a willing participant than the profile of a deceased man. It also helps that director Morgan Neville, known incisive films like 20 Feet from Stardom and Best of Enemies, is a skilled nonfiction storyteller.
Though Bourdain’s suicide was unexpected, this film doesn’t portray only the positives of its featured protagonist. His longtime producers detail their first experiences with him, which find him less than talkative and not nearly as open to their ideas as they had thought he would be, but that relationship built and developed, bringing with it stability and also tempestuous times. His final years in which his behavior was considerably more erratic and unpredictable foreshadowed his untimely death, offering some clues regarding what plagued him.
There is plenty of entertainment and humor to be found in a film that is mostly about the lasting impression Bourdain left on all he met. Among those interviewed and more than willing to share riotous anecdotes include fellow chefs, multiple romantic partners, and those who had the pleasure of working with him, whether or not they would always use that word to describe their experiences. Food isn’t as prominent a character as Bourdain devotees might think, since it’s his passion for it rather than any one cuisine or dish that resounds most.
More than anything, this is a chance for those who both knew and didn’t know much of Bourdain to meet him and get a sense of his character and demeanor. While it would be appealing to cast an actor like Chris Noth or Danny Huston who might match his physicality or baritone in a scripted biopic of his life – and that may well happen someday – it’s extraordinary to experience Bourdain this way, living his life as he did, often in front of the camera but never censoring himself or acting as if he was being watched. This is the best possible window into who he was and how he interacted with the world, and while it’s no replacement for still having him around, it’s a phenomenally interesting and rewarding journey.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is screening in the Spotlight Documentary section of the Tribeca Film Festival and will be released in theaters on July 16th.