I generally like to express a lighthearted and fun take on any film or television program that I’m reviewing. If you look at my portfolio I’ll generally ask questions like “What the hell is this?” and “What’s the best snack?” But that’s because most of the TV shows and movies I review for THS are fictional. Even if it’s a heavy drama, it was imagined up in someone’s head. The characters aren’t real. The story isn’t real. None of this actually happened.
But last night I watched Roadrunner, the documentary covering the rise and ultimate fall of food’s “Bad Boy” Anthony Bourdain. Beloved throughout the world for his sarcastic and decadent pursuit of international travel and seeking out the stories of those around him, the food in his so-called food travel shows took a back seat to the experiences of seeing exotic lands and meeting interesting people.
Bourdain invited us to be his guests on journeys across the planet from the comfort of our living room couch, and his observance of local customs and manners were juxtaposed by his passion for justice and disdain for political correctness.
And then, in a shock to our collective system, Bourdain died by suicide in 2018.
What Is Roadrunner Really About?
Roadrunner delivers on its promise. We can debate all day about the recent magnificent stories we’ve seen, telling the “true” tales behind some of recent history’s greatest figures; such as The Last Dance’s look into Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, and whether or not everything is portrayed accurately, or spun in a Jordan-positive light.
To be honest, we’ll never truly know if Roadrunner delivers on what Bourdain would say about himself. But then again, that’s not the point. Roadrunner tells the story of Tony Bourdain through the eyes of those who were closest to him and loved him the most.
Yet it is not without its controversy. Recent reports have surfaced now, during the film’s wide release, that filmmaker Morgan Neville used digital “voice-cloning” technology to deep-fake Bourdain’s voice. This allows Bourdain to do the voiceover for the documentary, saying things that he never said in life. Generally, the material appears to be from emails and other written documents that Bourdain’s own hand wrote. But naturally, this has sparked debate among whoever decides to have an opinion, with charges ranging from “it’s creepy” all the way to a violation of Bourdain’s intellectual rights.
But as far as I’m concerned, that’s neither here nor there. Let me tell you about the documentary I watched.
Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve been nothing more than a casual observer of Bourdain’s. I remember the controversy stirred at the turn of the century when he released his tell-all memoir Kitchen Confidential which launched him from unknown New York City cook and aspiring writer to celebrity chef status.
As someone who loves food and travel shows, I would sit down and enjoy a few episodes of one of his programs now and then. But ultimately, I was nothing close to a Bourdain superfan, though I knew he was a popular figure.
After watching Roadrunner, I can see why.
The Story – Roadrunner
The documentary begins with his launch to stardom. In 1999 Tony Bourdain was a 43-year-old cook who gained a hefty recognition from his New Yorker article ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This,’ which then became the basis for his book Kitchen Confidential. We aren’t witnessing too much of his early life, except for quick flashbacks for context here and there, because though Tony Bourdain was always Tony Bourdain, he didn’t become the Anthony Bourdain we know until he was launched into the stratosphere in 2000.
From there, Roadrunner continues in fairly chronological order, with recovered footage from an older documentary that was filmed but never finished. This gives us an incredible window into those early days of dealing with fame, being pitched on his first television program, and gaining more and more notoriety.
We see an awkward, nerdy cook who is able to turn on the charm every once in a while, who is thrown into a world of television and travel, neither of which he has any experience in.
It is amazing to watch those early Bourdain behind-the-scenes as we see flashes of the man we came to know and love, but ultimately there was a lot of work to get there.
A central theme of Bourdain’s story is his pursuit of happiness. He seemed to always be seeking out what could fulfill his life and make him happy. Several times throughout his life he seemed to have found it, but as we watch, we see that even then, he needs to seek something else after a while.
We watch Bourdain go through two divorces, fatherhood, and friendships, all while he constantly travels the world in search of that next great thing that will bring him happiness.
It appears that it was this ultimate pursuit and inability to find it in the external that led to his death, in France, in 2018.
For My Money
At the end of the day, what am I here to do? What is the purpose of a movie review? I suppose it is my job to tell you whether or not Roadrunner is objectively “good,” or perhaps “worth watching.”
I find those difficult labels for a project like Roadrunner. Is it good? It is. In fact, it is incredible. Is it worth watching? Sincerely, that is up to the individual. I would slap “Trigger Warnings” or TW’s all over this thing because it deals with depression, suicide, divorce, losses, and more.
For me, it was worth it, though I finished around midnight and had to put on some good old-fashioned sitcoms as a palette cleanser before I went to sleep.
To get such a voyeuristic window into the life of such an interesting person who we all knew as a TV personality is an incredible opportunity. Roadrunner is beautiful, hilarious, and heartbreaking. It is an intimate portrait that connects television’s charismatic Anthony Bourdain, too lanky and awkward Tony Bourdain, a chain-smoking former heroin addict, on his endless search to find happiness and the people who loved him and always will.
If you have the spoons, sit down and watch this film.
For the time being, Roadrunner is only in theaters.
If you or someone you love is dealing with depression and thoughts of suicide, please seek help. There are people who love you and are here to help you when you are in need.
Help is available on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)