How Bourdain’s Favorite Songs, Movies and Books Inspired a Movie About His Life
By Janelle Davis and Foren Clark, CNN
Editor’s Note: “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” airs Sunday, April 10 at 9 p.m. ET on CNN. The film traces Bourdain’s rapid transformation from assembly line cook to writer to globe-trotting television host.
(CNN) — His mission was complicated: To tell the complex story of the late Anthony Bourdain, a man he had never met.
Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville said that when researching a film subject, he tries to get as deep into the person’s head as possible. While researching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” he found a treasure trove of content to sift through in order to understand what fueled Bourdain.
“He was a real culture buff and he devoured books. He devoured music and he devoured movies. I’m the same,” Neville said. “I understood by the type of music he liked, the type of books he liked and the type of films he liked, how he saw the world to a certain extent and that helped me to tell his history.”
Bourdain’s dark and edgy musical taste
Music was one of the ways Neville connected with Bourdain, who was very vocal about his tastes.
Neville searched for every song Bourdain ever mentioned — whether they were featured on one of his shows, used in an Instagram story, or mentioned in his writing — and he put them all into a single playlist.
The 9 p.m. Spotify playlist features songs from a wide range of artists, including the New York Dolls, Sonic Youth, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna.
“I totally understood his taste in music,” Neville said. “It was informed by this post-60s proto-punk energy and in your face.”
While working on “Roadrunner,” the team listened to the playlist to channel Bourdain’s energy. And several of the songs ended up in the movie.
“I like to think that if Tony saw the movie, he’d be pretty impressed with the musical selection,” Neville said.
One of Neville’s favorite songs on the playlist is the one Bourdain had posted on his Instagram stories called “Forbidden Colours” by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It’s the theme song to the 1983 movie “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a bittersweet story about the Japan-British War.
Neville wanted to use it in the film, so he wrote a letter to the composer – explaining how much Bourdain had loved his work – to get permission to use it. It worked and the melody made it into the documentary.
“Anemone” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre, an underground indie band, was another Bourdain favorite, according to his friend and fellow bandleader David Chang.
“Dave says in the movie it’s hero music. I just think it’s music you want to be alone listening to. I think Tony was alone a lot,” Neville said.
No Wave, the downtown New York post-punk scene Bourdain witnessed in the late ’70s, pops up again and again on Neville’s playlist. The music captures the anarchy and desperation of the times. The songs are abrasive, confrontational and nihilistic.
Among Bourdain’s favorite No Wave acts was Iggy and The Stooges. Bourdain wrote of the Stooges’ debut album, saying it’s “an antisocial masterpiece of do-it-yourself aggression and raw, nasty, dirty rock and roll”.
In 2015, he said he had never been more intimidated, more anxious, more dazzled than when he met rock legend Iggy Pop while filming the Miami episode of “Parts Unknown.”
The episode ended with the song “Passenger”, one of Iggy Pop’s darkest and most romantic songs.
“It’s that kind of haunting song from someone who sees the world, but is kind of separated from it at the same time. And I think it’s a song that Tony could relate to,” said Neville. “It’s something that is more tiresome, the world tired in a way.”
Bourdain’s musical interests didn’t end with the ’70s, however. Neville was surprised that the “Parts Unknown” host liked Kendrick Lamar, Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest.
“There were songs that extended his rock and roll credentials in some way, but still, I think, made a lot of sense,” Neville said of Bourdain’s love of hip hop and R&B. “He understood that there was genius in these artists.”
How the big screen influenced Bourdain’s worldview
“Tony devoured movies like he devoured so much culture,” Neville said.
Bourdain didn’t travel much until his mid-forties when he started working on “A Cook’s Tour,” his first television show. Because of this, he came to understand the world largely through the movies. When he visited places for the first time, he compared them with their representation on the big screen.
Cinematic references seeped into his shows, often by Bourdain’s own design.
For example, the Roman episode of “No Reservations” was inspired by “La Dolce Vita” by Federico Fellini. Reflecting Fellini’s style, Bourdain shot the episode in black and white.
“I don’t think that’s the best idea. I’m sure there’s been a battle with the network over black and white on a cooking show,” Neville said with a laugh.
One of Bourdain’s favorite movies was “Chungking Express,” a 1994 romantic crime comedy-drama. Bourdain was a fan of writer and director Wong Kar-wai and loved his rich take on Asia.
Neville said Bourdain was looking for dark, romantic films that were beautiful at the same time.
Another all-time favorite movie was the 1973 film “Friends of Eddie Coyle,” starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Peter Yates. The film follows serious working-class criminals, and Bourdain used the Boston-based film as inspiration for the Massachusetts episode of “Parts Unknown.”
“It’s a movie where moral compromise is in the air and the characters try to do their best and probably don’t succeed,” Neville said.
He also thought Bourdain liked the nuance of the story.
“He liked movies that didn’t tell you what to think or how to feel when you come out of it,” he said. “You know, movies you can chat about.”
Neville went on to say, “There’s no way we can talk about Tony and the movies and not talk about ‘Apocalypse Now’.”
The 1979 war film follows Captain Willard’s fictional journey from South Vietnam to Cambodia during the Vietnam War on a top-secret mission to assassinate renegade Colonel Kurtz, who had won the trust of a tribe. local. The film, based on Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness” set on the Congo River in Africa, served as the visual reference for the Congolese episode of “Parts Unknown.”
The key questions presented in the film deeply touched Bourdain: what was it like to be a traveler in a foreign land? Was this relationship nurturing or toxic?
“I think so much about Tony’s life [was] about this balance, am I an observer or am I a protagonist?” Neville said. “Am I someone who tries to understand the order of the world or someone who tries to live in the world in a pleasant way and doesn’t care about any real-world consequences?”
While filming ‘A Cook’s Tour’ in Los Angeles, Bourdain recreated a scene from the 1950 film ‘Sunset Boulevard’ – where he was floating in a swimming pool, just like actor William Holden at the start of the film. Holden played a struggling screenwriter who narrated the movie from beyond the grave.
Neville said “Roadrunner” was deeply inspired by that film’s storytelling style.
“I immediately thought that was how I wanted to make this movie,” he said.
The documentary used Bourdain’s narration from television, radio, podcasts and audiobooks to tell his life story, reminiscent of both “Sunset Boulevard” and the experiential feel of Bourdain’s own shows.
“Early on, I just had this idea of having Tony help tell the story, and it was 100% influenced by ‘Sunset Boulevard’.”
Neville’s use of AI to retell several lines of Bourdain’s written words caused controversy when the film hit theaters.
“It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to bring Tony’s words to life,” Neville told Variety.
Bourdain liked books that make you dream
Bourdain was also a voracious reader.
He loved reading first-person nonfiction stories, one of his favorites being Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.”
“It was something that ticked all the boxes for him. It was smart, it was funny, it was irreverent,” Neville said.
Thompson’s gonzo journalism, a style of writing where writers become part of the story as they simultaneously live and report from a first-person perspective, was a big influence on Bourdain.
“‘No Reservations’ owes a lot to Hunter Thompson,” Neville said. Much like the book, the show was about a character jumping into a new world and coming out the other side with a deeper understanding.
Another of Bourdain’s favorites was George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” which served as the model for Bourdain’s first book, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” a revealer of the culture of restaurant kitchen.
“Down and Out in Paris and London” is a romantic book about being young, having these incredible experiences and surviving to tell the story of the other side, much like Bourdain’s memoir on all the challenges he endured in the restaurant industry and somehow managed to stay in the game.
In his spare time, Bourdain enjoyed books on espionage, such as “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré, as well as mystery novels like “52 Pickup” by Elmore Leonard, which is about a businessman of Detroit blackmailed after his infidelity was caught on camera.
“But when I find myself in a hole writing? I always come back to Elmore Leonard. He was a professional,” Bourdain said in a 2017 interview with The New York Times about his reading habits. Bourdain found his work inspiring.
Due to the nature of his work, Bourdain also sought out books on the impacts of colonialism, such as Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” a book about colonial Vietnam that he brought with him when visiting the country.
The book, Neville explained, is about being a colonial outsider in a country that views you with suspicion, but somehow you’re still inextricably tied to it, even if you’ll never fully understand it.
Bourdain told The Times that “The Quiet American” made him cry. “It always appeals to me,” he said.
The deep connections Bourdain clearly made with the media around him allowed Neville to connect with how the late “Parts Unknown” host perceived and interacted with the world.
“I thought for a long time about making the movie in a way that it would be my audience,” Neville said. “I wanted him to recognize himself and recognize those little things.”
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