Why Morgan Neville’s Anthony Bourdain documentary fails to close the gap between the on-camera Bourdain and the person who performed him
An obscure, 43-year-old chef and author of minor crime novels is reborn, after a sudden and unexpected literary success, into a life of global fame and influence. A charmed life, cut short when he hanged himself in a hotel bathroom in Alsace 18 years later. This is the story of Roadrunner, the new documentary about the late Anthony Bourdain directed by Morgan Neville.
The film is an elegant montage of interviews with Bourdain’s intimates — chefs David Chang and Eric Ripert, painter David Choe, musicians Josh Homme and John Lurie, Ottavia Busia (his second wife, and the mother of his daughter Ariane), and many others — intercut with images of rock stars, writers, and classic films he admired, and archival footage from a long, strange career in front of the camera. Over the years the boyishly awkward, Rundgrenesquely toothy grin of 1999 gives way to Bourdain’s familiarly friendly, knowing, jaded smile.
Since Bourdain’s death, the desire to get to the Real Truth of Bourdain has been as fervent as his memorialization. In the brave new world of social media influencers and reality TV, an awareness of the artificiality of even the most “authentic” branded personality is taken for granted; maybe more than that, people want — and even need — to know how someone so loved and admired could have slipped beyond the reach of friends, of help. And so the intense drive to understand the space between the genuine Bourdain and the Bourdain on camera grew. What Neville has attempted to do with Roadrunner is to close that gap. But he fails because the film, its subject, those who appear in it, and everyone involved — including all of us watching — are all drawn by it into the same superficial, risk-averse obscurantist commercial machinery. The film about the dangers of the fishbowl cannot be made from inside the fishbowl.
This difficulty rears its head in the very first interview, with John Lurie asking Neville how he thinks he can make this film, given that Bourdain “committed suicide, the fucking asshole.”
“I want to make a film about why he was who he was,” Neville replies.
“That’s why I’m here,” Lurie agrees. But very little follows in the way of investigation, let alone answers to that question, and that lack of rigor sets viewers up for a renewed feeling of loss and confoundment.
Is Roadrunner an “entertaining” movie? Yes. The music is superb — especially, I imagine, for Bourdain’s contemporaries, like me, who shared his taste; my heart positively soared to the rare strains of “Marquee Moon.” Fans will find much to admire in the striking moments Neville painstakingly collected from thousands of hours of recordings — early interviews with a shy, gawky Bourdain incapable of concealing his cannot fuckin’ believe this elation at somehow having written, at last, a best-selling book, the memoir Kitchen Confidential; Eric Ripert, mind-bendingly French, expressing his initial surprise at finding Bourdain “so articu-layte,” and his table manners so good; Christopher Bourdain sharing memories of reading Tintin comics with his older brother; a bespectacled and endearing first wife, Nancy Putkoski, so rarely seen before, apologizing for an indifferently prepared cheese plate, and appearing at parties by her husband’s side as he began to morph away from her and into his fame.
But Roadrunner is above all a consumer product — glossy and sleek, with a lot of beautiful feel-good cinematic moments to soften the feel-bad ones, a natural coda to what amounts to an 18-year, wall-to-wall screen capture of one man’s wild, sad, peripatetic life as a television star. It is a fakeout, like one of the Resy-branded Negronis served at the three-day Les Halles pop-up staged to celebrate the film’s premiere: an expensive, calculated media event, first class all the way. The drinks were delicious, no doubt. How could it be otherwise? “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you find the real tinsel underneath,” as Oscar Levant said long ago.
The media machine celebrating Bourdain’s life three years after his suicide has so far produced, in addition to Roadrunner, a Bourdain-themed newsletter from New Yorker editor David Remnick (who published “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” the essay later expanded into Kitchen Confidential), an extant as well as a forthcoming book from longtime associate and co-author Laurie Woolever, a flood of reminiscences and interviews, and the review, one among many, that you are now reading. In short, there is a Bourdain-industrial complex, and the pressure of being at the center of it made his life a very difficult one. There were unforeseen consequences to producing the kind of television he did, he told an interviewer, describing the resentments that developed in a remote community toward the rice farmer who’d been singled out and paid for his participation in a show, and the riot that broke out when he and his crew tried to feed a group of children in Haiti after filming another. (“The immediate human inclination when you see a bunch of hungry kids, is: ‘I will feed those kids’ … then the bigger kids shove the little kids out of the way…”) In the same interview: “We go to a small, struggling business that’s really cool, in a remote part of the world, the greatest bar ever, just locals go. We put it on television, suddenly all these tourists are showing up.”
As he wrote in A Cook’s Tour:
I sold my ass… When the shooter [cameraman] says, “Wait a minute,” you wait to enter the restaurant, jump in the river, or light the cigarette, so he can get the shot […]
I’ve had a lot of fun trashing Emeril and Bobby and the Food Network’s stable of stars over the last few years. God, I hated their shows. Now, I’ve gone over to the dark side, too. Watching Emeril bellowing catchphrases at his wildly barking seal-like studio audience, I find myself feeling empathy for the guy… One sells one’s soul in increments, slowly, over time.
Anthony Bourdain was a real person (whom I was lucky to meet just once, shortly before his death), but his famous authenticity and candor, his very isolation and loneliness, themselves became branded products glossily packaged for sale, fractally projected through books, shows, films.
This has perhaps heightened the controversy surrounding the synthetic voiceovers Neville commissioned for Roadrunner, which are darkly ironic in a distinctively Bourdainian way, touching on questions of art and artifice, fraudulence, deepfakes, privacy rights, the responsibility of disclosure, and media sensitivity or the lack thereof. In a recent interview, Neville told Brett Martin in GQ that he’d worked with four companies before settling on the best one to recreate Bourdain’s voice reading his own writing aloud. “I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive,” the director said.
In fact Neville’s technique exactly mirrors the style of Bourdain’s own television shows, in which he narrated memories and ideas over images he’d gathered over the course of a trip. It’s crucial to note that Bourdain’s own voiceovers were artificial in exactly the same way as Neville’s AI ones; audio of carefully edited text, added in after the fact to create the illusion of a host speaking, or thinking, directly to an unseen audience. To you and me. Bourdain was a wonderful writer, with an easy, instinctively intimate touch that helped blur the essential unreality of this process. If you felt that Bourdain was somehow speaking to you alone when he opened a show by saying something like, “Chances are you’ve never been to this place,” that was a deliberately crafted illusion, its uncanny evocation of intimacy a testament to the skill of a large group of media professionals. Bourdain, too, was an artificer. “I’m happy to lie,” he told Australian interviewer Jill Dupleix, adding, “it’s not an integrity issue, it’s a vanity issue,” when asked what professional line he would not cross.
But Neville’s slightly weird subterfuge, familiar and even appropriate as its effects may have been, created an instantaneous brouhaha around his film, among tech policy experts, food writers, and film reviewers alike. Pete Wells wrote to defend the director, bizarrely comparing the AI deception to the Woolever co-authored World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (no allegations of artifice have emerged against Woolever’s work). In the New Yorker, Helen Rosner, a writer Bourdain admired, brought nuance and clarity to a story that had grown still more complicated after Busia tweeted that she’d never approved the AI voiceovers, contradicting what Neville told Martin. Maybe what’s upset people the most about Roadrunner’s audio deepfakes is that fans, myself included, want so much to keep believing in the illusion, shared by millions, of Bourdain as a personal friend.
If the movie is ultimately dismal, and it is, that is because modern U.S. entertainment culture is dismal. The synthetic audio is a relatively trivial deceit; deeper layers of artifice and commercialism inform every moment of this movie by and about and starring industry professionals. The friends and associates who are caught weeping and reminiscing and raging in Roadrunner are on camera, subject to the lighting, angles, editing, and all the other strictures of filmmaking outside their control; even more insidiously, they’re all trapped in the television and film worlds, the crippling web of Hollywood’s freakish, dehumanizing cocktail of money, “talent,” and commercialized cool.
In Grantland in 2013, Andy Greenwald panned Bourdain’s appearance on ABC’s The Taste: “Bourdain’s snark was always as much of an affectation as the earring and cigarettes… Now he sits on a garishly lit soundstage, defanged like an aging circus lion.” Though eventually he achieved a lot of creative control over his own work, behind the scenes Bourdain still had to obey the commercial dictates of advertisers and bosses.
The strain of keeping up this impossible, unnatural public-facing existence would have been difficult to bear for even the strongest mental disposition. What did the fishbowl life do to this fragile, lonely man with all his hidden regrets? For all his famous candor, Bourdain could only hint about having often experienced suicidal ideation (in Medium Raw, in the novel Gone Bamboo, and again and again in casual conversation, as a joke); about what looked like a pretty serious drinking habit; about a 30-year relationship that had gone up in flames; about parents who had split up when he was a kid; about an obsessive infatuation with the film star and director Asia Argento, that took over his later life to some unclear degree.
Roadrunner isn’t a successful or serious biopic because it sidesteps or ignores these difficult questions. Was Bourdain an alcoholic? To whom did he bequeath the royalties of Kitchen Confidential, and why? What really happened to his first marriage? Why did his parents break up, and how did this affect his views of marriage, and of “success”? What was his relationship with them? (If this were Roadrunner I would now cut to another famous movie scene: “Describe in single worlds only the good things that come into your mind about… your mother.”)
Where the biographer’s art fails in the movie, the cinematographer steps in to paper things over with visual treats. I don’t care for Neville’s “arty” touches, like the much-mentioned cut from Bourdain, standing in bloody water after having helped to spear a pig to death in Borneo, to a flock of high heels perched on a red carpet. This sort of thing gives me hives. But there’s no denying that taken as a whole, Roadrunner is a beautiful artifact, a work of art, symbolism and commercial biography, attractive to look at and take in on its own, and I’m glad I saw it, even if the larger impression it left on me was pretty terrible.
In his blunt, matter-of-fact way, Bourdain expressed contempt for the notion of a memorial after his death in a clip that appears at the beginning of the film. “What actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me, I don’t want anybody seein’ my body, I don’t want a party… Reported dead,” he said flatly. “Unless it could provide entertainment value in a perverse or subversive way… I mean, if you could throw me into a wood chipper and spray me into Harrods in the middle of the rush hour, that would be pretty epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”
With Roadrunner, it might be said that Bourdain got his wish. This film is a crude grinding-up of a complicatedly troubled human being, sprayed out into a global commercial setting incalculably larger than the seven floors of London’s legendary department store. Though it must be said that Roadrunner is neither perverse nor subversive, because those are quaint concepts from the 1970s, a time that still believed in a peaceful and honorable order against which things like perversity and subversion might credibly be measured.