Directed by Academy Award winner Morgan Neville of Won’t You be My Neighbor? and 20 Feet From Stardom fame, Roadrunner, A Film About Anthony Bourdain features the man who dashed through our lives, the culture and the globe like the film’s name suggests; the introverted man whose metamorphosis to extrovert was complete on camera, traveling the world and bringing it to us in episodic chunks, a series of meals and musings revealing the imprint of travel on a person. His signature gift was making the world feel mostly welcoming. (Worth noting, those travels included Cuba of which he gushed, ” Even crumbling from neglect, Havana is the most beautiful city in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.”)
Bourdain’s familiar, and deeply missed voice tells us from the get-go: “You’re probably going to find out about it anyway, but here’s a little pre-emptive truth telling…there’s no happy ending”. I know that of course, but for the next 119 minutes, I’m resolved to take the final journey with Anthony Bourdain wherever it leads. And where it leads is a cathartic odyssey among his closest friends, colleagues and family trying to make sense of the loss that still feels raw three years after his death, while preserving the legacy of a man who is greater than his final act of suicide.
Dishwasher. Cook. Chef. Writer. TV Travel Host. Global Icon. These were just a few of the stepping stones in Anthony Bourdain’s career and life. There was also Rebellious Teen. Junkie. Romantic. Husband. Father. Boss. Perfectionist. Storyteller. Iconoclast. Amazingly, the documentary manages to spend time revealing a little bit of all these parts using interviews, film footage from travels, clips from his favorite movies, photos from his life and even snippets of his private and group therapy sessions. One of the documentary’s most unique and controversial elements is an artificial intelligence (AI) generated software to recreate Bourdain’s voice saying things he didn’t actually say. I will leave it to the moral ethicists to decide if this was a principled move but for me, someone who always took pleasure in hearing his wit and wisdom, I welcomed his narration of the story of his life.
“The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin…”Anthony Bourdain
His early heroes were musicians and writers. “The idea that you could have adventures and then somehow make something legitimate by writing something beautiful about them – that concept took an early hold of me.” By age 43, he thought he had had all his adventures – having lived a hard life of drugs and few responsibilities – but his adventures were just beginning. Asked to publish a book about his kitchen stories in eight months, he wrote Kitchen Confidential which brought overnight fame. The themes of addiction and a tension between conformity and non-conformity arc throughout his entire life. In a group therapy setting, he shares, “The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin. Something was missing in me. Some part of me wanted to be a dope fiend. My whole life was leading up to this point.” Yet later in that same therapy session, he confesses that another look in the mirror revealed, “someone worth saving.” He gave up heroin cold-turkey.
Still those addictive tendencies “jumped”. At 58, he started practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitively and one of his closest friends, observing his intensity noted, “I don’t think there was anything that would have lasted forever in his world.”
Enter Asia Argento. Or as Tony would describe her, “the crazy Italian actress” about whom he told his friends, it [their relationship] “would end very, very badly.” They met in Italy but their relationship took root in Hong Kong where Tony wrote in a journal, “To fall in love with Asia (the continent) is one thing. To fall in love in Asia is another. Both have happened to me. It’s a gift, a dream, a curse. The best thing, the happiest thing, yet also the loneliest thing in the world.”
Curiously, Asia Argento is not interviewed for the film; the film’s director having decided not to include her yet she is omni-present in the last quarter – the heaviest and most emotionally dense part of the film – as a force in Tony’s life. The timing of tabloid photos of her with another man and Tony’s suicide appear as cause and effect even though the film deliberately tries to underscore that she was not responsible for Tony’s death. One of Tony’s friend’s states, “Tony killed himself. Tony did it.” Still, the unspoken is there, all of it a desire to understand why a man who seemingly had so much to live for would make such an impulsive final choice.
As a long time fan, it is my hope that Anthony Bourdain’s spirit is healed, soaring to ever greater heights, wrapped in peace.
At the end of the 119 minutes, I’m not comforted or satisfied. In fact, I’m uncomfortable and newly in touch with the grief of his death. I have no more insight into why such a bright light was consumed by so much darkness. And is often the case with suicide, we, the survivors, may never get to know the details we think will bring closure.
Unsettled, my interest in the symbolic meaning of animals finds me looking up roadrunner, the slender fast-running bird of the cuckoo family, found chiefly in arid country from the Southern US to Central America and this is what I discover:
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The Roadrunner is a sign of Epiphany, Illumination and that something in your life has been healed on the spiritual and physical levels. The Roadrunner is sign to the completion of a phase, transformation or goal in life. You can now move forward to new and greater horizons. You have nothing to worry about.
As a long time fan, it is my hope that Anthony Bourdain’s spirit is healed, soaring to ever greater heights, wrapped in peace. At last. For his fans, this film affords one more opportunity to hear Bourdain, the great storyteller, tell a final story even as he warns us, it does not have a happy ending.
Roadrunner is currently in theaters throughout the US and is available online at Amazon, Google Play and Apple TV.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.