How Bourdain’s favorite songs, movies and books inspired a film about his life

Editor’s note — “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” premieres Sunday, April 10 at 9 pm ET on CNN. The film follows Bourdain’s rapid transformation from line cook to globetrotting writer and TV 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 he researches the subject of a movie, he tries to get into the person’s head as much as possible. While researching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” he found a treasure trove of content to sort through to understand what drove Bourdain.

“He was a real cultural vulture and he devoured books. He devoured music and he devoured movies. I’m the same,” Neville said. “I understood from the kind of music he liked, the kind of books he liked and the kind of movies he liked, how he saw the world to a certain extent and that helped me know how I could tell the story of him.”

Bourdain’s dark and avant-garde musical taste

Music was one of the ways that Neville connected with Bourdain, who was very vocal about his tastes.

Neville looked up every song Bourdain had ever mentioned, whether it was featured on one of his shows, used in an Instagram story, or mentioned in his writing, and put them all on a playlist.

The 21-hour-long Spotify playlist contains songs from a wide variety 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 kind of 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.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” reveals how Anthony Bourdain went from being a chef in a New York restaurant to one of the most prominent and beloved figures in the world of food and beyond. Don’t miss the movie on CNN this spring.

“I like to think that if Tony saw the film, he would be very impressed with the music selection,” said Neville.

One of Neville’s favorite songs on the playlist is one that Bourdain had posted on his Instagram stories called “Forbidden Colors” by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It is the theme song for the 1983 film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a bittersweet story about the war between Japan and Britain.

Neville wanted to use it in the film, so he wrote the composer a letter, explaining how Bourdain loved his work, to get permission to use it. It worked, and the tune became the documentary.

“Dave says in the movie that it’s heroin music. I think it’s music you want to listen to alone. I think Tony was alone a lot,” Neville said.

No Wave, the downtown New York post-punk scene that Bourdain witnessed in the late ’70s, appears again and again on Neville’s playlist. The music captures the anarchy and hopelessness of the time. The songs are abrasive, confrontational and nihilistic.

Among Bourdain’s favorite No Wave acts were Iggy and The Stooges. Bourdain wrote of The Stooges’ first album, saying it is “an antisocial masterpiece of self-made 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 for the filming of the Miami episode of “Parts Unknown.”

The episode closed with the song “Passenger”, one of Iggy Pop’s most darkly romantic songs.

“It’s this kind of haunting song of someone who sees the world, but is somehow separate from it at the same time. And I think it’s a song that Tony could relate to,” Neville said. “It’s something that’s more tired, world-weary in a way.”

However, Bourdain’s musical interests didn’t end with the ’70s. Neville was surprised to see that the “Parts Unknown” host liked Kendrick Lamar, Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest.

“There were songs that broadened his rock and roll credentials somewhat, but still, I think, they make a lot of sense,” Neville said of Bourdain’s love of hip hop and R&B. “He understood that there was genius in those 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-’40s when he began working on “A Cook’s Tour,” his first television show. Because of that, he understood the world largely through movies. When he visited places for the first time, he compared them to the portrayal of him on the big screen.

Cinematic references seeped into his shows, often by Bourdain’s own design.

For example, the Rome episode of “No Reservations” was inspired by Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Mirroring Fellini’s style, Bourdain shot the episode in black and white.

“I don’t think that was the best idea. I’m sure there was a battle with the network over black and white on a food show,” Neville said, laughing.

One of Bourdain’s favorite films was “Chungking Express,” a 1994 romantic crime comedy-drama. Bourdain was a fan of writer-director Wong Kar-wai, and liked his rich take on Asia.

Neville said that Bourdain was looking for darkly romantic movies that were beautiful at the same time.

Another favorite movie of all time was the 1973 film “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Peter Yates. The film follows gritty 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 are trying to do the best they can and they probably won’t,” Neville said.

He also thought that Bourdain liked the nuances of the story.

“He loved movies that didn’t tell you what to think or how to feel when you came out of it,” he said. “You know, movies you can argue 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 gained the trust of a local tribe. The film, based on Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness”, set on the Congo River in Africa, served as a visual reference for the Congo episode of “Parts Unknown”.

The key questions presented in the film resonated deeply with Bourdain: What did it mean to be a traveler in a foreign land? Was that relationship enriching or poisonous?

“I think about Tony’s life so much [was] about this balance of, am I an observer or am I a protagonist?” Neville said. “Am I someone who is trying to figure out the order of the world or someone who is trying to live in the world pleasantly and not worry about any of the real world consequences?

While filming “A Cook’s Tour” in Los Angeles, Bourdain recreated a scene from the 1950 movie “Sunset Boulevard,” where he floated in a swimming pool like actor William Holden at the beginning of the film. Holden played a struggling screenwriter who narrated the film from beyond the grave.

Neville said that “Roadrunner” was deeply inspired by that film’s style of storytelling.

“I immediately thought that this is how I wanted to do this movie,” he said.

The documentary used Bourdain’s narration drawn from television, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks to tell his life story, recalling both “Sunset Boulevard” and the experiential feel of Bourdain’s own shows.

“From the beginning, I had the idea to make sure that Tony could help tell the story, and that was 100% influenced by ‘Sunset Boulevard.'”

Neville’s use of AI to narrate several lines of Bourdain’s written words caused controversy when the film was released in theaters.
“It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come to life,” Neville told Variety.

Bourdain loved books that make you wonder

Bourdain was also a voracious reader.

random house

“It was something that checked all the boxes for him. It was smart, it was funny, it was irreverent,” Neville said.

Thompson’s gonzo journalism, a style of writing in which authors become part of the story while simultaneously experiencing and reporting from a first-person point of view, greatly influenced Bourdain.

“‘No Reservations’ owes a lot to Hunter Thompson,” said Neville. Like the book, the show is about a character who is thrown into a new world and comes out the other side with a deeper understanding.

seafaring books

“Down and Out in Paris and London” is a romantic book about being young, having these amazing experiences, and surviving to tell the story of the other side, much like Bourdain’s memoir about all the challenges he faced in the restaurant industry. and somehow managed to stay in the game.

penguin books

harper collins

“But when I find myself in a hole writing? I always go back to Elmore Leonard. He was a pro,” 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 work on colonial Vietnam that he brought with him when he visited the country.

penguin classics

The book, Neville explained, is about being a colonial outsider in a country that looks at you with mistrust, but somehow, you’re still inextricably linked to it, even though you’ll never fully understand it.

Bourdain told The Times that “The Quiet American” made him cry. “That always gets 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 so that he would be my audience,” Neville said. “I wanted him to acknowledge himself and acknowledge those little things.”

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