If you miss Anthony Bourdain — and for many, the celebrity chef’s death in 2018 felt like the loss of a close and troubled friend — Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” is a salve. Bourdain spent so much of his last 20 years being filmed, through four globe-trotting TV shows and endless media appearances, that the documentarian (“20 Feet From Stardom,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) has a mountain of material from which to choose, much of it private moments caught on the fly. Bourdain doesn’t seem the subject of the film so much as its narrator, and “Roadrunner” brings him eerily and empathetically back to life.
And yet a certain mystery remains. In part that’s because we can never truly know the inside of a person’s head or heart. But one also senses a skilled filmmaker pulling his punches out of respect for a much-loved man.
“Roadrunner,” which is arriving in theaters July 16 and will later be shown on CNN and stream on HBO Max, doesn’t spend much time on the early years, depositing us instead in 1999, as Bourdain’s best-selling culinary tell-all, “Kitchen Confidential,” readies for lift-off and the public appearances and TV interviews begin. He’s not the white-haired world traveler yet but a lanky veteran of the prep counter and cooktop, with a heroin addiction in his past that only burnishes his bad-boy reputation. (The film’s soundtrack, cued to the Modern Lovers’ title song and Television’s “Marquee Moon,” among others, serves as an edgy reminder of downtown roots.)
Unlike many of his celebrity peers (*cough* Emeril *cough*), Bourdain came across as resolutely genuine, rough-edged but warm-hearted, and he seemed spurred on by a restless curiosity more than a need for fame. Yet he was famous and lived much of his life on camera, from his first TV show, “A Cook’s Tour,” through his last, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” The paradox seems entirely relevant to the depression that ultimately led to his suicide (while on location for “Parts Unknown”), yet Neville and his interviewees only tenuously grapple with it.
Those interviewees are a choice lot, though, men and women who counted Bourdain as a collaborator and a friend and who weep openly as they talk of his final days. They include his TV producers, the married couple Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins, fellow chefs David Chang of Momofuku and Éric Ripert of Le Bernardin, artist David Choe, musicians John Lurie and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), and second wife Ottavia Busia Bourdain. For reasons unknown, first wife Nancy Putkoski, to whom Bourdain was married for 30 years, isn’t on hand, nor is actress-filmmaker Asia Argento, with whom the chef was very publicly involved toward the end. In Argento’s absence, “Roadrunner” villainizes her, with crewmembers alleging that her taking over the directorial reins of “Parts Unknown” was a source of friction and hints that her tabloid dalliances with other men led to further depression on Bourdain’s part. Maybe true, but it would be nice to hear Argento’s side of the story.
Similarly, the bust-ups of Bourdain’s first two marriages are handled with a discretion that seems designed to avoid complicating our feelings toward a man many would prefer to leave sanctified. The irony is that Bourdain would probably be the first to admit his failings in that blunt, funny baritone. He was tall and rakishly handsome and great good company as he roamed the world eating cobra hearts and making sure we met the locals and understood the politics, but someone here seems close to the mark when they describe Bourdain as an undercover nerd, following his passions rather than publicity. At the same time, he lived for the camera, up to and including at least one therapy session. Did the widening gap between the persona of “Anthony Bourdain” and the person who went by that name add fuel to his malaise? “Roadrunner” looks in that direction but doesn’t really go there. The urges that made this man run and run and run — and then stop — remain the real parts unknown.
ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN
Directed by Morgan Neville. Starring Anthony Bourdain. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 108 minutes. R (language throughout)