In 2016, Anthony Bourdain sat back in a leather couch to talk to a therapist in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was the first time he had gone to a session since his parents sent him to one after catching him with drugs as a teenager. He put on his reading glasses and went through a list he called “all of my ailments and problems.”
“I do tend to have a sort of a manic personality,” he told the therapist, describing how everything could be going great for him, and then at random, he could abruptly shift. “Then, suddenly, one little thing just sort of sets me off.”
The scene is a critical point in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, which opened in theatres on Friday.
Using archival footage and interviews with his closest friends and colleagues, documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville looks at how Bourdain became a worldwide icon. But the film also homes in on what might have contributed to his death by suicide in June 2018 at the age of 61.
“The fact of the matter is, his life was full of darkness, always,” Neville said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“What I felt like I had to do was figure out how to reconcile these two sides of Tony. Because I think when he died, the overwhelming thought that I heard from people was, ‘How the hell does somebody like Anthony Bourdain kill himself?’ Because he had such an amazing life.”
Neville said he wanted viewers to see the threads that could have contributed to Bourdain’s death, including how his virtues were also his vulnerabilities.
“The same ingredients were always there,” Neville said. “In many ways, his strengths were his weaknesses, too. His deep romanticism, his wanderlust, his profound curiosity and seeking, were his strengths, but also things that really kept him unrooted and unable to kind of sit back and enjoy things.”
The film starts in 1999 and moves along his career as he published his first bestseller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It shows how he found his voice and confidence while filming the television series A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, where he tackled food and politics and promoted the voices of marginalized people.
“But if you only look at what’s on the news, you can miss, maybe, what’s a bigger picture,” Bourdain said on the documentary.
Bourdain was such a memoirist that Neville said this intimate look into the chef’s life would have never been possible if he was alive.
“He was always making a film about himself,” Neville said. “It’s only because he died that the film ever got made.”
‘Untethered’ and drifting
Throughout the film, Bourdain’s group of friends and colleagues grapple with what could have led to his death. But Neville never points to one thing; in fact, he said he didn’t want the film to delve any deeper into Bourdain’s death than it already did. This factored into Neville’s decision to not ask Bourdain’s last girlfriend, Asia Argento, an Italian actress and director who was at the center of the #MeToo movement, to be interviewed for the documentary.
The film delves into Bourdain’s past with drugs and how Bourdain handled his romantic relationships, including with his first wife, Nancy Putkosi, and his second wife, Ottavia Busia, with whom he shared a daughter. When they separated, he was untethered once more.
Around that time, Bourdain wrote to his friend and artist David Choe: “David, this is a crazy thing to ask, but I’m curious,” describing his life with an expletive, “You’re successful, and I’m successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”
In the film, the email is read in Bourdain’s voice, which was created with artificial intelligence technology, according to The New Yorker.
“I know how hard that must’ve been for him to even write that email,” Choe said in the documentary, “to reach out to someone and be like, ‘Hey man, I’m not doing well.’”
One of the film’s most powerful scenes happens at a restaurant, where Bourdain is sitting across from musician Iggy Pop, and he asks him a curious question: “What thrills you?”
Iggy Pop answers, “It’s really embarrassing, but being loved and actually appreciating the people that are giving that to me.”
The film ends with Bourdain’s relationship to Argento and his involvement with the #MeToo movement. During his time in France, just before his death, he was filming with his friend Eric Ripert, the chef of Le Bernardin in New York. A tabloid had released pictures of Argento with another man.
Friends interviewed for the film theorized about his final moments.
“We’re trying so hard to understand because we think if we can understand it, then we’d be OK with it,” Karen Rinaldi, a book publisher and one of Bourdain’s friends, said in the documentary, “and the fact of the matter is, no. I don’t think we get to know. That’s tough.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.