Ironically, there’s not a lot of food in “Roadrunner.” At the documentary’s beginning — in footage shot before chef Anthony Bourdain of New York’s Les Halles became the best-selling author of “Kitchen Confidential” and a globe-traveling superstar TV personality — the fish is missing. Bourdain paces the sidewalk, wearing one gold hoop earring and faded jeans with his pristine chef’s jacket, bad-boy stylish for 1999. He’s on time; his staff is on time; the food delivery is late. “Where is my [expletive] fish?” he wonders in voice-over. Then, a half-joke: “It’s why all chefs are drunks — it’s because we don’t understand why the world doesn’t work like our kitchens.”
The moments in “Roadrunner” involving actual eating stand as signposts along the way of Bourdain’s journey around — and around, and around — the world throughout his meteoric rise, before his early demise of suicide at age 61 in 2018. There’s the coffee bought from a boat bobbing on a river during his first trip to Vietnam in his first series, “A Cook’s Tour,” a revelation mapping joy across his face as he exclaims, “That’s great! It kicks the [expletive] out of Starbucks!” More “Cook’s Tour” footage shows the consumption of a live cobra heart, from when stunt-eating was Bourdain’s stock-in-trade, and he notes, all casual bravado, “It kind of pumps on its way down.”
Then there’s a picnic of baguette sandwiches with his brother on a windy beach in France, moments made for the camera but also clearly a rare joy. And the familiar, familial sight of a father over burgers on a grill — Bourdain during a time of life he seemed very much to love, with his second wife and the daughter that he’d never pictured having. And when Bourdain dines al fresco with his friend chef Éric Ripert in a gorgeous orchard in Provence, half-joking about reincarnation — then later, again eating with Ripert on a hillside in Alsace, talking about choking to death, casting a desperate glance.
With all the movement in “Roadrunner,” there’s hardly time to eat. Bourdain’s trajectory almost has to be a blur, and filmmaker Morgan Neville — director of Mr. Rogers tribute “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and Oscar-winning “20 Feet from Stardom” — makes an almost two-hour running time seem like a montage, the pages of more Bourdain books rifling past, while more TV showed how real people everywhere live, with culture, history, joys and struggles depicted alongside food from all over the globe. Bourdain became a documentarian himself, and as such, “Roadrunner” highlights, an advocate for the working classes, immigrants, the poor — though he had no agenda, he maintains. “He didn’t realize, I think, how political he was,” Ripert says.
“It was almost never about food …,” according to his friend chef David Chang. “It was about Tony learning how to be a better person.” This learning became Bourdain’s teaching, and it became beloved far and wide, his popularity astronomical. But that — and traveling 250 days a year to do it — was, it seems, both too much and never enough. His fame wore him down. His own early struggle with addiction resurfaced, “Roadrunner” suggests, in myriad ways. “I’d like to be happier,” he tells a therapist, but what does it mean when even therapy is performative, the session filmed?
Does it help to learn more about the circumstances leading up to Bourdain’s death? To hear those who loved him talk about his life at the end is heartbreaking as well as heartbreakingly unsurprising, which makes watching the end of “Roadrunner” exponentially difficult. The redemption here — if there may, please, please, be some — is in the celebration of his life, and in the fact that all the love for him clearly cannot do anything but continue on.