When I first saw the trailer for Morgan Neville’s documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” I was excited, but hesitant. It felt a bit too soon and I’d been burned recently with two Bourdain book projects. In 2019, CNN put out a book from Ecco called Anthony Bourdain Remembered, which was a collection of memories about Bourdain shared by fans, celebs, and friends after his passing. A glorified picture book, the volume has no credited author or editor. Earlier this year, his longtime assistant Laurie Woolever completed a manuscript based on a taped conversation that the two had for a travel guide, also published by Ecco. The result, World Travel: An Irreverent Guide shines when Bourdain’s voice comes through via transcribed voice-overs from his shows. However, at nearly 500 pages, the book is a slog and feels nothing like the rest of the books written by Bourdain. Both books felt like cheap ways to cash in on his name.
Enter Morgan Neville’s doc, which to me felt a bit like watching “I Am Not Your Negro” in that if you had read the James Baldwin books that Raoul Peck used as source material it was not quite as impactful if this was all new information to you. Except that it’s clear from the get-go that Peck has a deep understanding of Baldwin as a man, as a writer, as an ethos. Morgan Neville does not display the same connection to his subject. “Roadrunner” does not add any greater insight into the man or the myth beyond what Bourdain had already revealed in his books, in his interviews, and in his shows. One of the most heartfelt bits of the doc is pulled directly from the “Parts Unknown” Miami episode with Iggy Pop. Filmed in 2015, the two iconoclasts share truly heartfelt, and hard worn truths that come with aging. Emotionally, I’m sure it’s much more impactful if you’ve never seen the episode, but for me it felt like a cheap pull without a credit to where the footage originally appeared or when it was filmed.
I have read most of Bourdain’s books, as well as many of his final interviews, and those give a better picture into who he was, especially towards the end. At times, the talking heads assembled add insight through their observations of Tony the man, but often it seems as though they’re trying to craft a truth as if you can ever have a true portrait of anyone. The way that Neville elicits tearful breakdowns from his subjects feels borderline exploitative.
For a man who had basically three major romantic relationships in his life, to only get the point of view of one of the women adds a strange bias to the framing of the rest. One person refers to his relationship with his first wife—his high school sweetheart, a woman he was with for 30 years, through pretty much all of his drug addicted years—as a Sid & Nancy relationship. What a thing to say and then not have any footage with this woman! In his book Medium Raw, Bourdain comments on his first marriage stating, “Of my first marriage, I’ll say that watching Gus Van Sant’s ‘Drugstore Cowboy’—particularly the relationship between Matt Dillon’s Bob and Kelly Lynch’s Dianne—inspires feelings of great softness and sentiment in me.” For those familiar with Van Sant’s film, Bob and Dianne are co-dependent drug addicts, but unlike Sid and Nancy no one dies. It feels overly sensational to allude to such a famously destructive couple when Bourdain himself had been open about their relationship in a much less tabloidesque way.