Review by David Baldwin
Who is Anthony Bourdain? Prior to a few weeks ago, I really had no idea. Despite not watching it, I knew he was a chef who traveled and ate foods from all over the world on a popular TV show called Parts Unknown, and I knew he had committed suicide. And that’s where my knowledge of this legendary artist ended.
Enter Academy Award-winner Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. It’s a lengthy title for a suitably lengthy film. Yet, it does not really feel very long at all. It opens as Bourdain is working on his future best-selling book Kitchen Confidential and quickly blasts into orbit as he starts traveling the world and becoming an international celebrity. It charts the highs and lows of his personal life, his addictive personality, his profane give-no-fucks attitude and the demons he was facing internally. Talking head interviews with family, close friends and his production team are peppered throughout, along with narration from the man himself and a treasure trove of candid and behind-the-scenes footage.
So needless to say, I am very aware of who Anthony Bourdain is now – or Tony as his friends called him.
Neville’s film is a powerful and captivating portrait of a man who was admired by people from all over the world. The sheer amount of footage that comprises the majority of the film is staggering to say the least, and the way he edits it altogether is masterful. It almost feels like a Scorsese film in its style, with the fast paced, wildly energetic first half leading into a slower, more contemplative second half. It does not halt completely so much as the rush dies down and you finally get to know who Bourdain really is. I found Neville’s choice of starting the film with the release of Kitchen Confidential – which I learned inspired a one-season sitcom headlined by future A-lister Bradley Cooper – rather than his birth and upbringing to be a bold choice. He hints at who Bourdain was before his immense successes, leaning casually into his addictions early in life and how they affected what came after, but never really spends too much time on them.
I guess this is where I should address the controversy that sprung up this week as a result of Neville saying that he used an AI-based system to recreate Bourdain’s voice in order to say things he never spoke out loud (such as a personal email), as well as stitching together audio clips of Bourdain from various sources. While many are outraged by this deceitful tactic, I am a little more ambivalent. I understand the artistic intent in what Neville is doing at the same time as I understand that documentaries are inherently manipulative. Most documentaries have a specific slant and message they want to deliver, much like a good essay or thesis paper. They may show descending viewpoints, though they typically know exactly what they want to say and documentarians twist their visuals and interviewees in order to say it (Michael Moore is very good at this, and it is the primary method used by just about everyone who made a documentary about US politics since 2015). So why should Neville be demonized for manipulating Bourdain’s voice? The film gets so much of its thematic resonance from hearing his voiceovers, more so than any remarkable piece of footage can deliver. It really gets to the heart of the story Neville wants to tell and gets you inside Bourdain’s mind. Yes, it is distasteful and slightly worrisome in the long term that Neville was able to recreate and mimic Bourdain’s voice so elegantly. Neville dismissing the ethics of his decision to do this is even more bothersome. Yet, I do not think the documentary would work if anyone else was doing the voiceover. It would lose its edge and its humour.
It would lose its soul.
That soul and the message it creates is amplified by the collection of interview subjects Neville has put together to speak about Bourdain’s life and how he impacted their own. The raw, unfiltered emotion is palpable (more so in the second half than the first), and the way his colleagues and friends speak about him feels honest and true. They often speak very highly of Bourdian and how much influence he wielded. But they just as often have negative things to say about him. They are not just blowing smoke up his ass and putting him on the pedestal; they are voicing their authentic and complicated feelings about the man, warts and all. It paints an interesting picture of Bourdain, especially when their words are juxtaposed against his own. I feel like Neville should have given Asia Argento, Bourdain’s girlfriend at the time of his death, time to speak her truth and feelings as opposed to cobbling their chaotic relationship into a small segment of the film. I also question why he did not speak to Bourdain’s first wife, Nancy Putkoski, nor his daughter Ariane. They may not have wanted to speak or were not asked to speak (which is what seems to be the case with Argento, who the documentary seems to suggest was at least partially responsible for Bourdain’s decision to commit suicide). Either way, the three of them not being included outside of the older footage feels like a missed opportunity. And much like the controversial narration, should have been addressed within the documentary in some fashion.
I watched Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain nearly a month ago and it has stuck with me ever since. I put off and procrastinated about writing this review because I did not think I would have much to say — though I feel like once I started typing, I have not been able to stop. Bourdain’s influence and his story made a lasting impression on all of his fans and every single person he knew. Neville’s documentary, ethics aside, is a wonderfully made piece and a moving tribute that is already among the best documentaries of the year. It is captivating and exhilarating to watch, and a painful reminder of what it means to lose someone that is so important to you. Neville never dwells for long on any one thing or moment, and gives a multifaceted depiction of who this flawed individual was. The deepfake discussion will likely overshadow the film, but do not let it sway you from watching the final product. It is well worth your time.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is in select theatres now. Please ensure you are cautious and respect all Covid-19 protocols if you choose to see this film theatrically.