Three years since Anthony Bourdain died by suicide at age 61, the celebrity chef still commands notice. A new documentary is bringing that attention to a boil.
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” takes an intimate look at the food-and-travel TV star’s life from his breakout success as author of the 2000 memoir “Kitchen Confidential,” to his rise in popular series like “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” The movie takes a turn as it deals with his death and attempts by his close circle to process the loss.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “20 Feet From Stardom”) said he wanted his movie to address what he called some of the public’s “unprocessed trauma” around Bourdain’s sudden passing.
Years after his death, Bourdain’s influence persists in popular culture. “World Travel: An Irreverent Guide,” a posthumous book by Bourdain and Laurie Woolever, topped several bestseller lists in the spring. Ms. Woolever’s book, “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography,” arrives Sept. 28, the same day as “In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain,” from Bourdain’s longtime TV producer and director Tom Vitale.
Do you need help? The contact number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
“Roadrunner,” opening in theaters on Friday, examines Bourdain’s relationship with his last girlfriend, Italian actress and director Asia Argento. It addresses a tabloid scandal that surfaced days before the chef’s death alleging that Ms. Argento was involved in another romance outside her relationship with Bourdain.
The film has picked up early raves and a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but some reviewers say the documentary comes too close to suggesting that a broken love affair played a role in Bourdain’s suicide.
An Indiewire reviewer called the movie’s treatment of alleged troubles with Ms. Argento “a queasy passage that comes dangerously close to exploiting the scenario” while a critic for the culture site Collider deemed the film’s handling of the subject “deeply gross and incredibly irresponsible.” A reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter asked whether, with time, people will feel “Roadrunner” placed too much collective blame on Ms. Argento.
Steve Kenis, Ms. Argento’s agent in London, declined to comment, and her agents in Italy and Paris did not respond to interview requests for this article. Around the anniversary of Bourdain’s death last year, Ms. Argento posted on Instagram a picture of herself weeping. “You want pain? Here’s the pain,” she wrote. “No filter needed. Two years without my love.”
Mr. Neville did not interview Ms. Argento for the movie. He did not know Bourdain personally. The director spoke with the Journal in this edited interview:
Anthony Bourdain’s death looms over any story about him. How did you grapple with that part of the movie?
At the beginning of the film, (musician and Bourdain’s friend) John Lurie asked me [on camera], “This story goes to gossip. But that’s not what you want to do, is it?” And I said, “No, I want to make a film about why he was who he was.” So his relationship with Asia, I felt like I didn’t want to get one inch deeper into that story because it was quicksand. You can make a whole film just about that and that was not the film I wanted to make. It gets really complicated and in a way that to me is not ultimately enlightening.
How do you square what you did decide to include about their relationship?
What I included was a fraction of what was there. So if people think there’s a lot, let me tell you, there is very little compared to what’s there. I feel like I showed tremendous restraint, even though people may not know that. And I think I was very fair with having seen all the facts. I’m very comfortable with what I did.
What legal steps did you take in the event Ms. Argento or others objected to their depictions in the film?
We had our lawyers and the CNN lawyers vet it. (CNN Films is an executive producer.) We hired a special Italian counsel to vet it based on the Italian law, and we went through it with a fine-tooth comb. I went out of my way to make sure I put the quote in from (TV director) Michael Steed saying, “Tony killed Tony, you know, 60-year-old men don’t normally kill themselves because they broke up with somebody.”
I’m not saying she caused his suicide. Suicide is a private and I think selfish act. I was merely trying to paint a picture, I think accurately, of the different factors in his life that were going on, and there were many of them. The impression of him really over the last year was him just being much more manic and much more depressive.
How did you come to understand Bourdain’s death?
His actual suicide is totally shocking and hard to process, but not surprising. He’s somebody who had been self-destructive for decades. He was a heroin addict, he had addiction after addiction and joked about suicide forever. I’m more of the belief that it was really just a momentary lapse of judgment. You know that they say that when people have suicidal episodes it lasts about 90 minutes, and that if people get help, it passes in that time. I think he was just too removed and remote and didn’t ask for help.
Was reality TV damaging for Bourdain, in your view?
By the time you got to “Parts Unknown,” it was barely about food. It was really him trying to do these cultural studies of these places and his shows got better and better and better. He started to think of each episode as its own little movie and he would actually send the crew a Wong Kar-wai film or an Antonioni film and say, “I want this episode to feel and look exactly like this movie.” He was really trying to push the form. I don’t think him becoming himself on screen was a bad thing. It’s the kind of rare gift of somebody who you feel is totally authentic.
Why should people who may not have seen Bourdain’s shows or read his books watch a documentary about him?
It sounds kind of inflated, but I thought a lot about it and I can’t think of anybody else who’s ever shown more of the world to the rest of the world on television than Bourdain. He helps dimensionalize people and places on the far side of the world. And that to me is the greatest achievement of what he was doing.
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