Given that fans already know where “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” will go, documentarian Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) makes the risky — but poignant and thoughtful — choice to begin at the end.
The celebrity chef, author and television host died by suicide three years ago, so it’s inevitable that a melancholy air suffuses what is nevertheless a warm celebration of an unusually full life. The effortlessly charismatic Bourdain never met a camera he couldn’t seduce, and Neville makes copious use of the 100,000 hours of video with which the project began.
This means we get to learn about Bourdain primarily from the man himself. Through well-edited archival footage, Neville takes us from Bourdain’s final months back in time, to his early years of aimlessness and drug addiction, followed by improbable achievements in the restaurant world and well beyond. The movie’s title comes from a Modern Lovers song, and Bourdain had a creative-punk edge that flows through the film, which includes interviews with sympatico fans and friends like Iggy Pop and John Lurie. Bourdain himself describes his chef work, most notably at Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles, as “a job whose daily routines have always been the only thing that stood between me and chaos.”
Bourdain’s meteoric rise took him by complete surprise after the publication of his first nonfiction book and instant bestseller, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” But he loved the attention and the press, was a natural onscreen, and embraced the opportunity to host shows like “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” in which he brought his loyal viewers on culinary adventures around the world.
The chaos, though, was always waiting. Neville is deeply respectful — “Roadrunner” is an unabashed tribute to its subject — but the filmmaker doesn’t occlude the chef’s dark side. Bourdain’s producers remember the tantrums he threw when a shoot wasn’t going his way. His friends recall the heavy moods that would unexpectedly overcome him. And as wide-ranging interviews with Bourdain and others make clear, satisfaction was always harder to find than success. The next adventure was always around the corner and needed to be chased. “It’s as if,” someone muses, “he can’t center in the mid-zone.”
The film’s final chapter stakes out some shaky ground, skirting very close to blaming Bourdain’s last girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, for his eventual emotional descent. She’s an easy-enough target, as a perpetually controversial figure who was a prominent leader of the #MeToo movement when she dated Bourdain, before being accused of sexual assault herself.
Even so, the movie’s oddly salacious focus on her role in his final mental struggles leaves a sour taste, given that it’s based on speculation and the subjective perspective of his inner circle. It feels as though their relationship is meant to solve a mystery that would otherwise be left distressingly incomplete: Why did an accomplished professional, revered friend and devoted father take his own life at the age of 61?
The painful truth is that this question can’t be answered, and some of the most moving moments occur during the contemporary interviews, when Neville allows Bourdain’s friends and family to sit with their still-wrenching uncertainty. Audiences drawn to Bourdain through the years may feel the same, but “Roadrunner” also gives them the invaluable gift of a stronger connection, deeper knowledge, and just a little more time.
“Roadrunner” opens in US theaters on July 16.