By JASON MARTIN (@JMartRadio – July 15, 2021)
“How does a storyteller check out without leaving a note?” – John Lurie (artist)
By any metric, Roadrunner is a fantastic documentary.
By any metric, Roadrunner is eye-opening.
By any metric, Roadrunner is painful and dark.
It would have to be in order to capture the essence of its subject, the former author and reality (this time legit reality) television megastar, Anthony Bourdain.
Full disclosure, as someone who never watched any kind of culinary show or the Travel Channel, not to mention avoiding much of CNN, I was only mildly familiar with Bourdain. However, it would be impossible not to have caught wind of his monumental bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, which peeled back many of the layers of the restaurant onion with a matter-of-fact, take no prisoners style of writing that left a feeling that the chef equivalent of Tony Soprano was speaking across the pages.
And, just like Tone, Bourdain needed therapy, but unfortunately he needed much more than he found in life. A heroin addict growing up, Anthony Bourdain had an addictive personality and he also appeared to be drawn into the abyss. Unlike Won’t You Be My Neighbor, where director Morgan Neville chronicled the ultimate “good guy” in Fred Rogers, Roadrunner required him to tackle a much less embraceable subject, one with sharp edges whose story would end in tragedy.
What you learn in the roughly 130 minutes of the documentary is just how tortured Anthony Bourdain was, how much he almost willed negativity into his life, culminating in the Asia Argento romance, which the film comes just shy of saying is the choice that led to his suicide. You’ll meet his producers and those that dealt with him on a daily basis, including footage of the earliest days shooting television with him. He was aloof, shy, and those behind the camera thought the entire project was doomed. Instead, he would go on to become a globetrotting dynamo who exposed the human condition in both a brutally honest and vibrant way. He could be overt, but he was just as effective using subversion to illustrate exactly what he felt was happening and why we should care. Clearly, he did, especially once he saw oppression and poverty and had to rationalize his own position with that of those he met along the path.
He was first a reader and then a writer, inspired by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, among others, and he was relentlessly fascinated with Apocalypse Now, particularly Marlon Brando’s performance. Look at those influences and gain insight into the mind of Bourdain, tiptoeing a line between calculated brilliance and dangerous, frightening madness. As with many genius-types, he was never satisfied with anything, most of all his life.
Roadrunner presents a portrait of a pop culture giant that cooked, ate, and finally galavanted and sped across the world in search of the next great adventure, and without saying it outright, reveals the sad truth: All the journeys, the once-in-a-lifetime moments, and the passion he encountered, weren’t enough. Perhaps he hoped the next destination would be the one to provide fulfillment, but it never came. He never found it. At one point in the film, a producer mentions that as excited as he was to arrive somewhere, he also couldn’t wait to leave and go somewhere else, even if that turned out to be nowhere.
And then there’s Argento, the actress who came around at the worst possible time for him. He was depressed and she brought her Harvey Weinstein Me Too stories, which were horrific and greatly affected him, plus her own mental instability and narcissism. These were two troubled souls placed together that broke up a marriage. At best, she served as an enabler for his downward spiral into the bleak morass that engulfed his heart. At worst, her inferred infidelity and control over his decisions and career led to his death.
Roadrunner is insanely good, but at times it’s a hard watch. The problem with the good times is the knowledge of just how bad things would get. His favorite song was one from his youth about the highs from heroin. He had friends, but even those closest to him could catch a verbal elbow from time to time. At least half the people featured in the documentary come close to shedding tears, and one, his close friend Josh Homme, better known as the lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, reveals that after the suicide, he stopped playing music and wasn’t sure he ever would again.
If Anthony Bourdain affected you in some way through the years, it’s nothing compared to what those in his inner circle that knew him best felt for him. Their anger and frustration pulses through the back half of the film as Neville does an exquisite job of setting the right pace early to remind us how talented this man was and then in the back half, how he was a walking ball of chaotic fire, with social media posts that serve as morbid clues to the end of his life.
Whether you know anything about Bourdain, Roadrunner is beyond worth your time. Morgan Neville is one of the great documentarians of our era. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the highest grossing biographical documentary of all time. If that film was order, this one is chaos, and the two subjects demand such a dichotomy. It’s not perfect, but it’s darn good. Raw, stripped down, with plenty of foul language to go with its brisk pacing. It’s a whirlwind and it’s exhausting, but you owe it to yourself to see it.
The lasting impression is one of loss, as it made me wish I had spent time watching Bourdain’s work, but also left me sad that the world lost one of its greatest modern storytellers. At this point in history, with true journalism difficult to find, it’s the Anthony Bourdain’s of the world that show us our world, expose our society, and make us feel.
It’s a rare gift. And it sucks he was taken from us in this way, leaving friends and family heartbroken and bitter, including two wonderful children. Roadrunner is an achievement. It’s not just a documentary. It’s a depiction of how an unsatisfactor reality internally can rip the meaning of life out of foundations that all turn out to be fleeting, regardless of how many miles one travels to try and recapture the magic over and over again.
In short, if you’re an adult, you absolutely need to see this movie. Your jaw might require some assistance after it hits the floor, but you will be amazed at just how much you DIDN’T know, even if you thought you knew the story as well as you know Kitchen Confidential. Highly recommended. Don’t wait. See it as soon as you can. You’ll want to be part of the conversations with everybody else who sees it. You can’t just watch it and walk away.
Mark my words.
It’s still in my mind.
And I saw it over a month ago.