The ending of Roadrunner, Morgan Neville’s new documentary about the life, career, and 2018 suicide of Anthony Bourdain, packs quite a punch. After exploring the celebrity chef’s relationship to fame and how his death affected those closest to him, the film closes on Bourdain peacefully walking into the distance on a beach—or so it seems. A voiceover from Bourdain’s friend, artist David Choe, breaks the spell to say that Bourdain himself would hate this saccharine ending. He then criticizes the way society idolizes artists who take their own lives by, for instance, painting their faces on the sides of buildings. A voice behind the camera points out that there are such murals of Bourdain downtown. “I should go deface them,” Choe says. “He would love it if I did that.”
The camera then cuts back and forth between footage of Choe using spray paint to deface a mural of Bourdain and footage of other interviewees going about their lives. It’s a cathartic ending that manages to at once avoid romanticizing suicide and to feel true to Bourdain’s irreverent, punk-rock spirit. But once again, all is not as it appears. While murals to Bourdain have popped up in various cities since his death, Neville told Thrillist in an interview that the mural seen in the movie is actually one the documentary commissioned, something that’s not obvious to viewers. He also revealed that that Choe spray-painted the mural and cut his hair—which he hadn’t done since Bourdain’s death—at Neville’s request:
[…] when he floated that idea of defacing the mural, I loved it, but I didn’t do anything with that for six months. And then six months later, I said, “David, remember that thing you said, how would you feel about doing that?” And he was like, “I’m game.” He hadn’t cut his hair six months later, so I said, “Would you shave your head and deface the mural?” And he’s like, “Sure, because Tony would have loved it.” And, I will say, we actually commissioned the mural that we defaced.
There are many good reasons, including legal reasons, not to actually deface an existing mural of Bourdain, let alone on camera, but the knowledge that the filmmakers orchestrated the scene and paid for one of the murals Choe was just decrying—even one intended to be destroyed—certainly muddles the message. Roadrunner has already raised questions about documentary ethics and artifice over Neville’s admission that he used artificial intelligence to recreate Bourdain’s voice to read some of the words he had written. Now it seems that wasn’t the only crucial part of the movie to be staged without signaling to the audience that it was a dramatization.