Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2021. CNN Films, HBO Max, Tremolo Productions. Cinematography by Adam Beckman. Produced by Morgan Neville, Caitrin Rogers. Music by Michael Andrews, Sarah Lipstate. Film Editing by Eileen Meyer, Aaron Wickenden.
The breakout success of Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential turned him into a surprise, relatively late-life star whose talent in the kitchen was just part of his appeal for people: handsome, erudite and humorous, the 43 year-old former graduate of the Culinary Institute of America taught us that the back of the restaurant wasn’t just a job but a culture. After the book became a best-seller, he intended for his next project to be a trip around the world as research for a follow-up on international cuisine, but producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins approached him with the idea of making a television series instead. Following him on his adventures with a camera and capitalizing on the promise of his initial success, the first show, A Cook’s Tour, was followed by years of further hits (No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown), with Bourdain thrilling his fans by combining the experience of fine dining with journalism and storytelling, treating food as a gateway to understanding the places he went and the people he met. As anyone paying attention to the news in 2018 knows, this magnificent journey came to a crashing halt in 2018 when the celebrity chef took his own life at the age of 61, leaving his friends and family grasping to understand their loss, and in this documentary show themselves to be suffering grief tinged with feelings of guilt and regret. Director Morgan Neville assembles a wealth of footage from years of outtakes, takes audio quotes from Bourdain’s many narrations, slips in a few “deepfake” recordings of his voice created with A.I. technology (the ethics of which is a standing point of contention between Neville and Bourdain’s ex-widow, Ottavia Busia) and arranges them around present-day talking-head interviews with the subject’s family and friends including Busia, crew member Helen Cho, fellow restaurateurs David Chang, Eric Ripert, and artists David Choe, John Lurie, Josh Homme and Alison Mosshart.
The camera footage, which Neville expertly navigates out of sequence without confusing the viewer, is reflected upon and reveals to the viewer that Bourdain’s witty, effortless demeanor was resting atop a darkness that, possibly, those close to him didn’t know much about or, as is more likely, didn’t know how to access, witnessing a successful career whose smooth exterior was hiding an increasing tension and fatigue as time went on. It sometimes feels like the details in the interviews are an attempt by the filmmaker to create more of a narrative than is actually there, the plot is simply that he had a breakout success that he sustained until he burned out, but the scenes that Neville includes are so entertaining that it doesn’t matter that the film sometimes feels like it has more than it needs (the running time is intentionally set to the exact length of Bourdain’s favourite film, Citizen Kane). Towards the end of his life, following his split from Busia, Bourdain entered a relationship with actress and director Asia Argento that seems to have taken him to his rockiest ground; unpopular as she was with the show’s crew, Neville does his best to not point any fingers at Argento (who does not participate in the film) but rather suggest that Bourdain’s unusually strong obsession with her, which resembled the substance addictions of his past, was his own mental health crying for help. Much like the man himself, the film is more complicated than you would think a biographical film about a famous television host would be, contemplating what the value is of so culturally and materially rich a life if the satisfaction of one’s soul remains perpetually out of reach.