July 29, 2021
Three years after the untimely death of multitalented TV personality Anthony Bourdain, a recently released documentary has revealed a new side to him.
Morgan Neville, who is no stranger to documenting great artists that have grappled with addiction, having directed Johnny Cash’s America, Search and Destroy: Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power, and Keith Richards: Under the Influence, released his newest offering, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.
Culling from troves of behind-the-scenes tapes and other outtakes from Bourdain’s illustrious television career, Roadrunner combines these with interviews from friends and family, and, together with Bourdain’s own voice-over, offers an honest and candid look into its titular hero’s life.
Upon the film’s release, controversy ensued when Neville revealed that some segments of Bourdain’s voice-over were entirely fabricated using machine learning. The quotes, while purportedly real, didn’t exist as audio recordings. While it is a testament to technological prowess that Bourdain’s authentic voice-over was indistinguishable from the computer-generated clips, it brings to question the validity of Bourdain’s audio presence in the film.
Its AI trickery aside, the documentary excels at telling a genuine story. It chips away at Bourdain’s charismatic outward personality, displaying his inner flaws and vulnerabilities. It isn’t a sycophantic puff piece but rather a sincere look at a complicated life beset by addiction and depression.
Upon the success of his first book, Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain was given the opportunity to turn his follow-up into a television travel series, as opposed to a written sequel. How Bourdain found his footing as a television host makes for some of Roadrunner’s most compelling scenes.
Despite the on-screen persona Bourdain molded for television screens, he was internally shy and introverted. He demurred from the camera so much that upon filming the first episodes, producers were ready to dub the show a flop. But Bourdain’s naturally addictive personality wouldn’t let that happen.
From his earliest days as a heroin junkie, when Bourdain got into something, he would see it through all the way. He was immediately hooked. He didn’t have hobbies, only obsessions, which he would see through to the last detail. “The biggest sin,” Bourdain would often say, “is mediocrity.”
Bourdain’s addictive personality swept through every facet of his life, both to his advantage and detriment. For example, when he was interested in jujitsu, he didn’t just take a few classes on Groupon. He began training every day — as often as twice a day — any time he wasn’t traveling.
It was with this relentless, life-enveloping drive for perfection that Bourdain rose from the ranks of the restaurant industry to the New York Times’s bestseller list to his ultimate vocation: traveling to every nook and cranny of the globe, with little more than a camera crew, an open mind, and an empty stomach.
Bourdain was a romantic; he learned life through cinema and literature. The documentary scraps clips from Bourdain’s artistic affinities to complement his story. Scenes from films such as Apocalypse Now and a jukebox playlist with Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, and the Talking Heads all lend their artistic flares to help guide you through Bourdain’s enigmatic persona.
The documentary does veer on stretching out its second half. Roadrunner didn’t need to be a two-hour feature, especially as some of the voice-over was artificially generated for the film. But its indulgence is understandable. This was a final farewell to Anthony Bourdain; the filmmakers likely felt they wanted to make the most of their footage.
For all his fondness of the finer things in life, Bourdain, at heart, appreciated simplicity. He was often happiest not in the festooned halls of Michelin-starred fine dining but in the bustling alcoves of Chinatown or a weathered picnic table off in rural France, feasting on wine, a fresh baguette, and an assortment of cheeses and meats. This, if anything, is the lesson of Bourdain’s life. Go out and feast on the world. Travel to new places and enrich yourself, and don’t forget to enjoy the little things; they are what make life worth living.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner