I was — am — a huge Anthony Bourdain fan. I have all his books, and I’ve seen every episode of all his shows.
As detailed in “Roadrunner,” a new documentary helmed by Morgan Neville, Bourdain shot to stardom almost overnight. He went from working in a hot and crowded kitchen one day, to being a New York Times bestselling author traveling the world the next.
I first read Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” in a hospital room. It was February 2001, just about six months after Bourdain’s book was first published. It was the week of my twenty-first birthday, but I was in an ICU in my hometown. One of my dearest friends was succumbing to a long and tortuous battle with leukemia.
Her brother, father, and I had the night shift at the hospital. We were subsisting on cafeteria coffee, inappropriate dad jokes, and anything we could read that would keep us awake. Someone brought a paperback copy of “Kitchen Confidential” one night, and I gobbled it up.
It was a fascinating look at the world of professional kitchens, in a voice and style that immediately grabbed my interest. They whisked me away from the beeping monitors, sterile smells, and crushing sorrow of the ICU. I loved that book.
The Weight of Fame
Neville does an amazing thing in “Roadrunner.” He shows how someone known and loved by millions can still feel alone, afraid, and lost. The show interviews Bourdain’s closest friends and creative partners, people who knew the man behind the camera. What you see is a portrait of a man who was never really comfortable being famous.
I’ve never been famous. I’ve never wanted to be famous. I can’t imagine a world with no privacy, in which a simple trip to the grocery store becomes an exercise in dodging fans and paparazzi. Neville shows us Bourdain didn’t know how to deal with that either. He tried and did an admirable job, but he never really succeeded.
At one point in the documentary, world-renowned chef David Chang recalls Bourdain explaining that he just tries to be nice to people who see him in public. It’s clear though (and Neville tells this via tales from Christopher Collins and Lydia Tenaglia, Bourdain’s TV partners for more than a decade beginning on “A Cook’s Tour”) that Bourdain never wanted to be on TV, to be the focus of the show.
“A Cook’s Tour” was about Tony smoking, drinking, and cussing his way across the globe as he ate “weird sh-t,” as they originally pitched it to the network. In one episode, Tony ate a beating heart from a Cobra. In typical fashion, he mocked their lack of preparation as they got ready to kill a deadly Cobra at the table in front of him. “They don’t have their mise en place done,” he told the camera.
Tony found that in order not to sound like a typical television food and travel host, he had to take the wheel of his shows. His scripts quickly changed from narration copywritten by others to words only he would author. He saw that the show’s narrations were an extension of his written work, which was absolutely not in the voice of Bobby Flay or Rick Steves.
Restless and Addicted to the Next Thing
Tony had an addictive personality, which “Roadrunner” explores. That manifested as a teenager with a bad drug habit that included cocaine and heroin. It morphed into the pursuit of perfection in the kitchen, then an addiction to being on the road. He went from someone who rarely traveled before “Kitchen Confidential” to someone who spent nearly 250 days a year in a hotel room.
Such a life is taxing on your relationships — your family, friends, and most of all your soul. It was clearly a blessing and a curse for Bourdain.
Bourdain was known for his relationship with Ottavia Busia because of the daughter they had together, but it’s easy to forget he was married to his high school sweetheart for 20 years before that. After sticking with Bourdain through his years of struggling in the restaurant industry, Nancy Putkoski was the first casualty of his fame and success. Bourdain’s brother Chris says in “Roadrunner” that Putkoski had no interest in her husband’s celebrity or being wrapped up in it.
As Bourdain began touring the world, his marriage crumbled back in New York. To deal with his divorce, he wrote a novel, where, as he narrates in “Roadrunner,” “the characters’ yearnings for a white-picket-fence kind of life reflect my own far more truthfully than any nonfiction I’ve ever written.” He tried to have that normal life with Busia, but it didn’t last either.
That brings up a controversial point in “Roadrunner”: its narration. This isn’t a PBS-style documentary in which James Earl Jones narrates Bourdain’s history, life, and death. In an odd, and almost unnerving way, Bourdain “narrates” a documentary about his life and even his death.
Neville accomplished this with clips from the tens of thousands of hours of television Bourdain shot, both what made the air and what didn’t. However, there are a few quotes in the movie where we hear Bourdain utter words that he never recorded. That’s because Neville created an artificial intelligence that was able to “speak” as Tony Bourdain. It has caused a lot of controversy in the lead-up to the movie’s debut, particularly since Bourdain was a man who hated “faking it.”
Neville didn’t make up the words the AI “spoke”; he just used a deepfake voice to read aloud text Bourdain composed while still alive. Still, is this the future of “documentaries,” where computer-reconstructed voices of those dead and gone tell us their life stories?
Whether told in Bourdain’s own words or through his friends, “Roadrunner” shows a man struggling with being lonely. Bourdain had a road family — his many cameramen, directors, producers, and fixers — but he also needed a home base.
He didn’t find that in Putkoski, and although he loved and adored his daughter, he and Busia quickly fell out of love and began living separate lives. In 2016, the couple separated and he quickly began dating Italian actor and director Asia Argento.
Bourdain’s Explosive Relationship with Asia Argento
This brings us to the other major controversy about “Roadrunner.” Although Morgan Neville interviewed Bourdain’s second wife Ottavia Busia, and features a decent amount of footage of his first wife Nancy Putkoski at the beginning of the documentary, he chose not to interview Argento.
She is nonetheless a major part of this film, and features prominently in the discussions of why Bourdain killed himself in June 2018. Several people close to Bourdain discuss how he told them at the beginning of the relationship with Argento that he had a feeling it was going to end badly. And Bourdain himself tells us at the beginning in his eerie, narrating-your-own-death voice that this story won’t have a happy ending.
Argento was like a wildfire that tore through the final years of Bourdain’s life. In “Roadrunner,” one of his longtime directors describes Bourdain as a teenager head over heels for her.
During a shoot of his “Parts Unknown” show in Hong Kong, Bourdain’s director became ill and couldn’t make the trip at the last minute. Tony insisted on Argento directing the episode, and her changes were so drastic they drove a wedge between Tony and much of his crew.
Tony even fired Zach Zamboni, his Emmy-winning cinematographer, when he disagreed with Argento’s vision for the episode. Longtime producer Helen Cho says that firing was “a huge red flag” because it showed “anyone in the inner circle is essentially disposable.”
This was part of what production partner Christopher Collins describes as Bourdain’s “manic nature” in the twilight of his life. At one point Bourdain met with Collins and Tenaglia to discuss ending his show. He told them that in a perfect world the show wouldn’t feature him at all, it would just be from his perspective.
“Every band comes to an end. It’s time for us to break up and go our separate ways,” Bourdain said. When he told them he really wanted to make his relationship with Argento “work,” they gave their blessing, and told him to move to Italy and forget about the show. Then Tengalia says Bourdain froze.
Bourdain — a man everyone describes as rushing into and out of everything he did — just couldn’t do it, she said. So they told him they would figure out how to lessen his load and make it work.
Hopeless and Trapped
Just before Bourdain died, he was filming an episode with his friend Erick Ripert in Strasbourg. During the shoot, paparazzi pictures of Argento holding hands with journalist Rino Barillari splashed across the internet and the papers. “Roadrunner” interviews many of the people who were there on that shoot when Bourdain died.
The episode’s director recalls his last conversation with Bourdain, in which the host was livid about the pictures and seemed humiliated. Bourdain’s final Instagram post appeared to include the opening soundtrack to “Violent City”, a 1970 revenge film that begins with paparazzi photos of a wife cheating on her husband.
Neville asks Eric Ripert, the man who found Bourdain hanging in his hotel room, to recount the experience in “Roadrunner.” The chef kindly refuses. With tears in his eyes, he says, “That is something I do not speak of.”
Bourdain’s brother Chris tells Neville, “I think if someone else had been in his room, it might have been a murder and not a suicide. I think he was just having explosive anger and this was the only way out.”
At this point in the film, there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. Everyone around me, many of whom were probably (like me) seeing a movie for the first time in a year and a half, openly wept. The last third of this film is heartbreaking. It’s a picture of a man who didn’t believe he was lovable. He had everything in the world: money, fame, Emmy Awards, a Peabody, and more frequent flyer miles than almost anyone, yet still wasn’t happy.
Many will pin Bourdain’s suicide on those photos, on his failed relationship with Argento. I don’t think that’s true. Granted, I didn’t know the man personally, but everyone interviewed in “Roadrunner” did. The film is a stellar picture of someone who always had trouble dealing with the world.
As a kid, Bourdain soothed those wounds with drugs. Later he tried to do it with a family. When all that came crashing down, it seemed he just didn’t know who he could turn to for help. The only way he thought he could get out of that dark, dangerous place was by ending it all.
He’s not the only one. Many people have been in that position of utter despair, perhaps yourself. Maybe it was the death of a friend or family member, maybe it was a divorce, maybe it was failing at something you tried so hard to get right. Every year, in the United States alone, nearly 50,000 people take their own life.
If you take away nothing else from “Roadrunner,” take away this: there is always someone who can help you, always someone to talk to, even in your darkest of hours. Whether that’s a friend, a co-worker, a professional, or just your cute, old dog, there is always someone who can help pull you back from the brink.