Documentary about the legendary author, chef, and TV host’s life engages in weird speculation about his death
Chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain died by suicide at a hotel in France on June 8, 2018. He didn’t leave a note. His toxicology report was clean. His family and close friends were left reeling, wondering why he did it, and Bourdain’s fans were distraught, wondering the same.
The new documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain has come under fire recently for the way director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, 20 Feet From Stardom) artificially modified Bourdain’s voice, but it’s the film’s treatment of Bourdain’s sudden and untimely death that should be getting more attention.
It’s true there’s no way to make a movie about Bourdain without focusing on death–not just his own, but the concept of death in general; the man joked in writing and on camera about death and his own demise multiple times, including many recorded instances in Roadrunner. But the documentary staunchly avoids any mention of Bourdain’s death until the back third of the movie, and then it goes into rampant, almost fascinated speculation about why he decided to end his own life.
One’s response to this film hinges on two things: the amount of goodwill people feel toward Bourdain and the amount of journalistic integrity you think the documentary form should have. As a piece of art about a man who impacted lots of lives and expanded the horizons of many, it’s a triumph that never delves too deep into hagiography but also has a lot of sympathy for its subject. Fans of Parts Unknown and Kitchen Confidential probably won’t find much new information about the man, but newcomers will surely be fascinated with his outlook on the world and his rise from chef to author to international celebrity. But as a pure journalistic exercise, Roadrunner falls flat. The film leaves multiple voices out of the discussion, and this CNN-backed documentary clearly has a point of view about Bourdain’s life and his legacy.
The film makes part of that point of view present through the words of Bourdain himself, in archival footage: “We’ll fix that in the edit.” Archival footage, home videos, Instagram stories, TV interviews and Parts Unknown footage make up most of Roadrunner. The only new parts are talking head interviews from people like his second ex-wife Ottavia Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins and friends like chef David Chang and artist David Choe. Neville also artificially added in three instances of Bourdain’s voice speaking words he wrote but never said; namely an email he sent to Choe about finding happiness amid success.
“If you watch the film, other than [the email], you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI and you’re not going to know,” Neville said in an interview with The New Yorker last week where he described the process of feeding hours of recordings of Bourdain’s voice into a program to achieve something that sounded like the real article. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
Neville said he and the other filmmakers involved with Roadrunner cleared the usage of AI with Ottavia, saying she told them “Tony would have been cool with that,” but she issued a harsh disagreement on that matter last Friday.
“I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that,” she tweeted.
I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that. https://t.co/CypDvc1sBP
— Ottavia (@OttaviaBourdain) July 16, 2021
In the film, Choe starts to read the email in his own voice before the audio morphs with the AI version of Bourdain’s voice, culminating in Bourdain’s AI voice finishing the email. The moment would have been more powerful had Choe just read the full email.
This is not the first time documentary filmmakers have skirted the fine line between truth and fiction; that’s been happening as far back as 1922, when Robert Flaherty’s silent film Nanook of the North featured a staged interaction between an Inuk family and a white fur trader. A more recent example is Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line, which drew ire at the time of its release for its use of slow-motion reenactment footage. And the documentary form itself is not a true capture of the truth; people act differently when they know someone is filming them.
After news broke about the AI recording, we learned that Neville also staged another moment in Roadrunner featuring Choe. Choe mentions in an interview that he hasn’t had a haircut since Bourdain died, and said he doesn’t like the fact that American society idolizes those who have committed suicide by painting murals to them or building shrines to them. “I should go deface one of the murals,” Choe says.
The film ends with Choe shaving his head and defacing a Bourdain mural on the side of the building. Neville later said the mural was one that the documentary commissioned and that Choe cut his hair upon Neville’s request.
The usage of such creative liberties in Roadrunner caused many to start down the slippery slope of the implications of deepfakes and other technological advances. Indeed, AI voice recording is just the tip of the iceberg for this type of technology. And this should worry people. But the tone Roadrunner takes at the end is even more worrisome.
For a film so enamored with Bourdain, someone who lived larger than life and valued blunt honesty, Roadrunner seems oddly concerned with blaming someone for Bourdain’s death. All of the interview subjects agreed Bourdain had an addictive personality, and all knew his relationship to drugs in his pre-fame days. Roadrunner devotes a lot of footage to explaining how Bourdain traded his heroin addiction for jiu jitsu, or cooking, or traveling, or writing. None of the talking heads outright say it, but the overwhelming sentiment seems to be that Bourdain’s relationship with, attachment to, and subsequent fallout from girlfriend Asia Argento is what caused him to kill himself. Argento doesn’t appear in Roadrunner, nor is there any mention of an attempt to contact her.
It’s a cop-out way to try to explain the choices of Bourdain, who this documentary shows was endlessly complicated, thoughtful and conflicted, and it’s an implied conclusion that’s entirely subjective.
Neville told Vulture he “debated it for months,” but ended up deliberately deciding to exclude Argento from the documentary.
“She’s given interviews. I kind of know what she was going to say. And even as I was putting the story together, as I was trying to make the decision about how to handle it, when I started to put more of that story into the film, it instantly just made people want to ask ten more questions. It became this kind of narrative quicksand of ‘Oh, but then what about this? And how did this happen?’
“It just became this thing that made me feel like I was sinking into this rabbit hole of she said, they said, and it just was not the film I wanted to make. I just want to know why he was who he was and felt like the balance of the film would have tipped over if I had put her in it… I felt like I’m trying to make a psychological portrait of a person’s entire life. And I just didn’t want to be capsized by it. So I made the call. People can disagree.”
Roadrunner is a thorny exercise in documentary ethics, but an ultimately moving tribute to a man who approached every interaction with the world with open eyes. How true to life it is is up for debate.