Jun 24, 2021
By Kaveh Jalinous
Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a captivating and moving tribute to the chef, travel show host and author. The documentary mixes archival footage with interviews with Bourdain’s close friends and family to chronicle his extensive career.
Initially starting as a chef at an average New York restaurant, Bourdain’s career launched into hyper-speed after the release of his book Kitchen Confidential. After the book’s incredible success, Bourdain was tapped to host a travel show, where he would go around the world, experiencing all sorts of foods and cultures from different places. The combination of his books, his shows and his distinct personality made him a world-famous television persona for years until his devastating suicide in 2018. The documentary does not focus on certain aspects or shows of Bourdain’s career. Instead, it provides a retrospective of one of the culinary and travel television world’s strongest influences.
Roadrunner’s overarching focus is the key to its success. The magic of making a movie about Bourdain’s career, which was filled with so many twists and turns, is that there are so many different memories and experiences to draw from. Instead of making a movie strictly about the different things Bourdain did and made, Neville focuses on and centers the film around the different places that Bourdain traveled to. As a result, the archival footage does not just showcase Bourdain in his most natural, and happiest, element. It also makes the film feel like even more of a fitting tribute to the traveler in general, taking viewers on a worldwide trek just like the one that Bourdain did, over and over again.
The film’s swaths of archival footage and the way Neville pieces them together adds to Roadrunner’s appeal. A common issue with archival-based documentaries is that the footage can feel forced into the film, without a clear narrative structure to connect the pieces together. Here, Neville ties all of the archival footage and interviews together nearly perfectly, setting it up so that when an interviewee talks about an incredibly specific moment from one of Bourdain’s episodes, that very moment flashes on screen.
This aspect of Roadrunner is most striking when the documentary highlights Bourdain’s trip to Congo. This is one of his dream destinations that his producers never thought would be possible. As an interviewee talks about the horrifying weather and flight conditions, including the torrential rainstorm and a banged-up and leaking plane that they flew on, behind-the-scenes footage of that moment plays under the voice-over. Viewers get to not only hear about the horrifying situation but see and comprehend just how scary it was. This scene, and ones like it, not only make the film more captivating to watch, but help viewers truly understand the lengths Bourdain went to make his shows legitimate and unique.
Of course, Roadrunner doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker sides of Bourdain’s life – including his drug addictions, his insecurities and his suicide. This is where the interviews are utilized most. The people closest to Bourdain: his producers, his ex-wife and many of his friends. explain some of Bourdain’s tendencies on-set and in his personal life. They specifically focus on his fragile state in the years leading up to his death. The interviewees speak not only about their personal experiences with Bourdain but also try to make sense of what happened to their friend. It’s harrowing to watch, and it showcases not only how one’s decision can affect the lives of so many others, but also how much Bourdain is missed every day.
Its difficult moments notwithstanding, Roadrunner honors its larger-than-life subject by spotlighting just how grand his life truly was. Interesting archival footage, well-conducted interviews and Neville’s clear and apparent vision all make the documentary one of the year’s best and most unforgettable features so far.
Author rating: 7/10
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