How Bourdain’s Favorite Songs, Movies and Books Inspired a Movie About His Life

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By Janelle Davis and Foren Clark, CNN

His mission was complicated: tell the complex story of the late Anthony Bourdain, a man he had never met.

Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville said that when he researches a movie subject, he tries to get into the person’s head as much as possible. While researching “Roadrunner: A Movie About Anthony Bourdain,” he found a wealth of content to browse so he could understand what fueled Bourdain.

“He was a real culture vulture and he devoured books. He devoured music and he devoured movies. I’m the same,” Neville said. “I understood through 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 how to tell his story.”

Bourdain’s dark and sharp taste in music

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

Neville hunted down every song Bourdain ever mentioned — whether it was featured on one of his shows, featured in an Instagram story, or mentioned in his writings — and he put them all in one playlist.

The 21-hour Spotify playlist features songs from a wide variety of artists, including the New York Dolls, Sonic Youth, Snoop Dogg and Rihanna.

“I’m totally into music,” Neville said. “It was informed by this post-60s, proto-punk kind of energy and in your face-ness.”

While working on Roadrunner, the crew listened to the playlist to channel Bourdain’s energy. And some of the songs ended up in the movie.

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

One of Neville’s favorite songs on the playlist is a song Bourdain had posted on his Instagram stories called “Forbidden Colors” by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It is the theme song of the movie ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ from 1983, a bittersweet tale of the Anglo-Japanese War.

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

“Anemone” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre, an underground indie band, was another Bourdain favorite, according to his friend and fellow chef David Chang.

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

No Wave, the post-punk scene in downtown New York that Bourdain experienced in the late 1970s, keeps popping up on Neville’s playlist. The music captures the lawlessness and hopelessness of the time. The songs are abrasive, confrontational and nihilistic.

One of Bourdain’s favorite No Wave acts were Iggy and The Stooges. Writing about The Stooges’ first album, Bourdain said it was “an antisocial masterpiece of DIY aggression and raw, filthy, filthy rock ‘n’ roll.”

In 2015, he said he had never been more intimidated, fearful and starstruck than when he met rock legend Iggy Pop for the filming of the Miami episode of “Parts Unknown.”

The episode concluded with the song “Passenger,” one of Iggy Pop’s darker romantic songs.

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

Bourdain’s musical interests did not end in the 1970s, however. Neville was surprised to find that “Parts Unknown” host Kendrick Lamar liked Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest.

“There were songs that broadened his rock and roll references in a way, but still, I think, made a lot of sense,” said Neville of Bourdain’s love of hip-hop and R&B. “He understood that there was genius in those artists.”

How the Big Screen Affected Bourdain’s View of the World

“Tony devoured movies the way he devoured so much culture,” Neville said.

Bourdain didn’t travel much until he was in his mid-40s when he began work on ‘A Cook’s Tour’, his first television show. As a result, he largely understood the world through movies. When he first visited places, he compared them to their representation on the big screen.

Movie references seeped into his shows, often through Bourdain’s own design.

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

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

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

Neville said Bourdain sought dark 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 grievous working-class criminals, and Bourdain used the Boston-based film as the inspiration for the Massachusetts episode of “Parts Unknown.”

“It’s a movie where moral compromises are in the air and characters try their best and probably fail,” Neville said.

He also thought Bourdain liked the nuance of the story.

“He liked movies that don’t tell you what to think or how to feel when you get out,” he said. “You know, movies you can argue about.”

Neville went on to say, “It’s impossible to talk about Tony and movies and not ‘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 local tribe. The film, based on Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness” set in Africa’s Congo River, served as a visual reference for the Congo episode of “Parts Unknown”.

The film’s key questions resonated deeply with Bourdain: What did it mean to be a traveler in a foreign land? Was that relationship nurturing or toxic?

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

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, much like actor William Holden in the beginning of the film. Holden played a struggling screenwriter who told the film from beyond the grave.

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

“I immediately thought I wanted to make this film,” he said.

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

“From the start, I just had the idea to make sure 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 alive,” Neville told Variety.

Bourdain loved books that make you wonder

Bourdain was also a voracious reader.

He loved to read 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 checked all the boxes for him. It was smart, it was funny, it was irreverent,” Neville said.

Thompson’s gonzo journalism, a writing style where authors become part of the story while simultaneously experiencing and reporting from a first-person perspective, had a profound influence on Bourdain.

“No Reservations owes a lot to Hunter Thompson,” Neville said. Like the book, the show was about a character who plunged into a new world and came out the other side with a deeper understanding.

Another Bourdain favorite was George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which inspired Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a story about restaurant kitchen culture.

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

In his spare time, Bourdain enjoyed books about espionage such as “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré, as well as reading mysteries such as “52 Pickup” by Elmore Leonard, about a Detroit businessman who is blackmailed after his infidelity for the camera was captured.

“But if I write myself in a hole? I always go 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 effects of colonialism, such as Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” a work about colonial Vietnam that he brought with him when he visited the country.

The book, Neville explained, is about being a colonial outsider in a country you view with suspicion, but somehow you’re still inextricably linked to it, even if you’ll never quite understand it.

Bourdain told The Times that “The Quiet American” made him cry. “That always touches me,” he said.

The deep connections Bourdain made apparent to the media around him allowed Neville to connect with how the late “Parts Unknown” host perceived and interacted with the world.

“I thought long and hard about making the film so that it was my audience,” Neville said. “I wanted him to recognize himself and recognize those little things.”

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