Anthony Bourdain lived a life larger than words can really describe. The culinary master turned insider writer extraordinaire turned television traveler and truth-teller captivated the globe with his sojourns into parts unknown, always armed with a sly sense of humor, open eyes and a big appetite.
Certainly, Bourdain’s penchant for eating things like Vietnamese cobra hearts and insects earned him virality (no, not that kind), but his willingness to dive into cultures new to him without Western bias made him a spiritual mentor to millions who tuned in to his various television shows and read his numerous books. To many, Bourdain understood how to live. His life was enviable — to travel around the world, meet new people, explore a bevy of cuisines and get paid for it? Bourdain’s journeys were, to his audience, dreams vicariously fulfilled.
Bourdain killed himself in June 2018, just days after famed fashion designer Kate Spade did the same. It was a critical moment in mental health history — two beloved figures dying by suicide so close to one another. It sparked a national conversation on suicide prevention. For some people questions abounded as to why a person who seemed to live such a gregarious, full life would want to leave it. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain wants to tell Bourdain’s story and eulogize his grand life, but it also desperately wants to understand the tragedy of his death, almost above all else.
Documentarian Morgan Neville is known for, among other projects, 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?— which studied another beloved entertainer, Mr. Rogers. Here Neville talks to many of Bourdain’s friends, co-workers and even one of his ex-wives about how the chef and television star formed his patented persona. He had a gruff but nevertheless inviting charm, a foul mouth and a giving heart. He had countless experiences to reference and an uncanny ability to connect with strangers. His programs — No Reservations and Parts Unknown among them — encouraged viewers to step outside their comfort zones and explore the grander world, free from undue judgment but always seeking out the best. He was a cook’s cook, a writer’s writer and a TV personality’s TV personality. Bourdain was revered.
He was also human, and Roadrunner is at its best when it gently recounts some of Bourdain’s inner struggles. He was a busy man, one who didn’t get a ton of time to spend with his young family or to develop the sort of domestic bliss that so many take for granted. Bourdain’s life was certainly enviable, but the documentary shows that, as a sought-after celebrity, he had little opportunity to recharge and feel normal. Friends and colleagues paint a portrait of someone who felt a strong urge to tell people’s stories for them and affirm different cultures, but also of someone who had a strong desire to feel loved. To some extent, the film dances around the melancholy of the situation, until it can’t help but face it directly: Bourdain died by suicide, and the visible horror, sadness and frustration felt by his friends, family and colleagues won’t fade away just by honoring his memory.
Suicide is incredibly difficult to discuss, particularly because sometimes friends, family or fans want to rationalize why it happened. Roadrunner, despite trying to contextualize where Bourdain’s mind might’ve been at the time of his death, wisely stays away from giving a cause. In the end, we’re left with a beautiful life cut short by inner demons, and a legacy this documentary does a wonderful job of recognizing and praising. As he did with Fred Rogers, Neville gets to the heart of who Bourdain was to us, but also who Bourdain was when the cameras were off. Trying to cope with such an overwhelming loss still hurts for those who loved the entertainer, but in the end, it’s the call to not take life for granted and to explore the beauty of the world around us that still rings true.
Bourdain may be gone, but Roadrunner stands as a grand testament to who he was and how he continues to live on through those who keep his open-minded sensibilities close to their heart.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 — it’s a free, 24/7 source of assistance and guidance.