A documentary about Anthony Bourdain chronicling his professional career premiered in theaters this week. It was beautiful, and tragic, funny, and heartbreaking.
***Spoiler Alerts*** Though his life was very public, his travel, food television shows and books widely available, I intend to disclose aspects of the film that may constitute as spoilers.
Two years following Anthony Bourdain’s death, a documentary about his life, Roadrunner, premiered this week. The story began with Bourdain cooking in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. The film documents him in rarely seen footage around the time of his first book, Kitchen Confidential. Through the lens of a chef de cuisine at the Brasserie Les Halles, Roadrunner shows Bourdain at his desktop computer pounding at a keyboard, and later, finding out he made the New York Times bestseller list from a phone on the wall of the restaurant’s kitchen.
Through the process of securing his first series, A Cook’s Tour, through his numerous other books, No Reservations, Parts Unknown, and ultimately to his death; the film focuses on his professional side that was hidden from his travel shows on the Food Network and CNN.
The documentary delivers an honest behind-the-scenes peek into Bourdain who viewed himself more as a writer than chef before experimenting as a reluctant TV host. The butterfly of Bourdain’s persona is opened beyond the professional kitchen that made him famous into a devoted producer of his own tv shows that turned more artistic over time.
Pure joy and elation filled the packed theater’s visitors when reliving some of Bourdain’s greatest travel moments. In the early footage, I caught glimpses of airports and equipment from days gone by. A pair of Midwest Express DC-9s, a 727, airlines like ATA still flying at the time of that first series.
Sweeping vistas captured Bourdain alone in the dunes of the Sahara, setting up shots in Bangkok, Thailand, and drinking wine with Ripert in France. The film was filled with shots from around the world and the journeys that viewers like me felt they participated in.
Josh Homme, a songwriter and friend of Bourdain, describes a struggle that many travelers have, especially weekly business travelers on the road 250 days per year as they both were. Homme nails the traveler’s dilemma:
“Nothing feels better than going home, and nothing feels better than leaving home. The bittersweet curse.”
I have so often felt that.
Bourdain narrates much of the film himself in shockingly haunting ways. The opening line of the film begins in his own voice:
“You’re probably going to find out about it anyway, so here’s a little pre-emptive truth telling: there’s no happy ending.” He continues “I said before I was going to tell you the truth, this is part of it.”
For as unfiltered as his on-screen persona appeared, there was a beautiful life revealed in the Morgan Neville documentary. We saw a man who loved deeply, enjoyed barbequing with his family complete with a Hawaiian shirt (he wouldn’t be caught dead in one on camera.) Playing with his daughter in the pool, at the beach, in his living room were heartwrenching views into his actual life, the one we all thought we knew but did not.
He was the anti-suburban family man on camera, bemoaning a pedestrian life that so many of his viewers led, while keeping his hardened image through the scene before escaping back to his retreat in the backyard.
I was reminded of an adage I had long forgotten, once an addict, always an addict. A friend of his, Cho, claimed Bourdain was “the only guy I’ve known to quit heroin cold turkey.” Despite years of clean living, even giving up cigarettes for Jiu-Jitsu training, the underlying causes of his addiction crept back up, with some claiming that Argento became his addiction, and thus, the loss of their relationship was his ultimate bottom.
He didn’t return to substance abuse, but it was clear that his self-destructive behavior was lying in wait patiently for an opportunistic moment to appear again to drag him to the depths of depression.
We saw an unexpected hero, a “nerd” who saw himself as a writer first, cook second, traveler last. It was an unexpected turn for this long-time viewer of his work.
At least twice, Bourdain and his team were caught (unexpectedly) in a war zone. Viewers wouldn’t have been aware of an episode shot in Beirut in which families sought shelter at their hotel, and evacuations by boat split families. He didn’t want to air it, it was never produced. He thought it was important for Americans to see the heartbreak taking place around the world sometimes at the hands of Americans, and sometimes as an indirect result of policy. That included seeing an exchange with an amputee in Laos.
There was a side that the film revealed that was genuine, compassionate, without sarcasm or his signature cynacism.
Tragedy Transcended the Headlines
Fans of Bourdain embrace his brash nature but may forget about his battle with heroin addiction, cocaine, and depression. Mystery swirled around his death when it was announced that he died by suicide while on location in France, filming an episode of Parts Unknown with a friend and fellow celebrity chef, Éric Ripert.
The avid writer and ravenous reader left no note to mark his death on June 8, 2018. At the time of his death, his toxicology report revealed no chemicals in his system. He was a dedicated advocate of the #MeToo movement after his girlfriend, Asia Argento, revealed on stage at Cannes that she had been a victim of Harvey Weinstein.
Some theories alleged that he had not hanged himself due to these unusual circumstances, though the film paints a picture of a depressed man, alone in the public eye with an ex-girlfriend publicly displaying the end of their relationship by appearing loved up with a new beau.
His friends and colleagues held little doubt. They saw a broken man who had simply returned to his natural depressive state following nearly a decade of relative happiness.
Produced by Focus Features, Zero Point Zero (Bourdain’s former production company) CNN Films, and HBO Max, the film does a beautiful job of weaving through his life in a way that’s genuine rather than contrived. A heavy dose of the restaurant industry both past – when Bourdain was a line cook – as well as later in life when he communed with celebrity chefs like David Chang, shows a similar progression through his life.
The film took some liberties, pointing to a Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown directed by Argento, to show a callous, unhinged, Bourdain succumbing to his own Yoko Ono. The doc also used a small combination (less than 60 second purportedly) of deepfake Bourdain AI audio from his writings allegedly with the blessing of his estate.
It’s also confusing that while the film is produced by HBO Max, the documentary was not simultaneously released on the streaming app unlike other dual premiers like this weekend’s Space Jam: New Legacy.
I stopped short of openly sobbing in a movie theater surrounded by strangers – but just barely. Despite knowing the tragic end he’d ultimately face, I felt far closer to the man himself than even at his untimely passing. It was harder to reach that conclusion having watched his growth, the people that impacted his life and were impacted by him, and the struggle against substances that dogged his life. It reminded me of those close to me that have struggled with addictions such as his. We don’t know the demons others around us battle, and despite success, money, fame, fortune, family and friends that deeply care – sometimes it’s still not enough.
To close this week, I’m not going to ask discussion questions (though feel free to comment as you like.) Rather I am just going to implore our readers to reach out to those you love, don’t assume they aren’t struggling, and find a way to check-in and show your support.
If you know someone who may be struggling with addiction or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.