Pano: Thinking Like a Chef with ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’

Morgan Neville’s Documentary Captures Beloved Food Expert’s Life Story

Morgan Neville | Credit: Courtesy


It’s hard to imagine a better way to return to the movies than the Saturday, July 17, Santa Barbara Film Society screening of Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Blessed on one hand with an abundance of archival footage, some of it dating back to before Bourdain became a television personality, Neville was on the other hand cursed by the exceedingly well-known and tragic ending of the celebrity writer/chef’s life story. Neville, one of the world’s top documentarians, grew up in Santa Barbara and was clearly delighted to be able to screen the film for an appreciative audience here. Roger Durling did a superb job on the Q & A, delivering precisely phrased questions that offered Neville sturdy platforms from which to launch his mind-bendingly detailed and thoughtful accounts of the painstaking process that brought Bourdain’s story to the screen.

Despite its predetermined downer of an ending, Roadrunner provides multiple instances of the kind of sensory rush that Bourdain would have surely appreciated. Neville won an Academy Award for the 2013 music documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, and he flourishes his knowledge and skill at combining sound and image again in this film. His success scoring montage sequences to great rock songs puts him on a level with Martin Scorsese and very few others. After the initial use of “Roadrunner,” the song by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers that gives the film its title, Neville returns to the late 1970s for an instrumental section of a track that elevates the film right as Bourdain first becomes famous. 

Instantly recognizable even without so much as a line of its lyrics, the guitar break from Television’s “Marquee Moon” provides an audio equivalent to the sudden ecstasy Bourdain experienced when his book Kitchen Confidential made him an overnight sensation. “Marquee Moon,” for those who desire context, was the “Stairway to Heaven” of the CBGBs era. Richard Lloyd’s and Tom Verlaine’s intertwining guitar lines glisten like neon as the Bowery darkness “doubles” in Verlaine’s memorable phrasing. It’s on the 21-hour (!) playlist that Neville created of songs that Bourdain recommended to him.

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“Tower 1” by Shana Moulton | Credit: Courtesy

Listening to Morgan Neville describe the monumental task of reviewing more than 10,000 hours of archival video before editing it down to create Roadrunner, I was reminded of what Anthony Bourdain wrote in the introduction of his Les Halles Cookbook about the importance to a chef of mise en place. “Meez,” as Bourdain spells it once he has offered an English translation of the term, is the threshold concept that underlies all successful cooking. “If you have your meez right,” Bourdain says, “it means you have your head together, you are ‘set up,’ stocked, organized with everything you need and are likely to need for the task at hand.” In this cuisine-informed worldview, the work area reflects the mind at work.

Meez in this sense makes an interesting concept to apply to art, where the period of preparation and the state of the work space can have comparable consequences for the result. To see the meez of a gifted artist, one who clearly thinks like a chef in the best sense of that expression, get over to the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara for the final days of Shana Moulton’s The Invisible Seventh Is the Mystic Column. Moulton’s command of the tools and resources of multiple media — sculpture, installation, performance, video, and music — reflects a personal aesthetic of unusual breadth and depth. The fact that Moulton’s alter-ego, Cynthia, appears to struggle with the unintended consequences of her various life recipes only serves to emphasize the mysterious mastery being exercised in Moulton’s creative kitchen. 

On Friday, July 23, at 5 p.m., Moulton and Irene Moon will perform several short pieces in the gallery for an audience of MCASB members. The performances will also be available for viewing on Instagram Live via @mcasantabarbara starting at 5:15 p.m. Following the performance, the public is invited to join for a closing celebration from 6-8 p.m. on the Upper Arts Terrace at the Paseo Nuevo. For more information, visit


For this midsummer’s week, may I recommend a feast of Morgan Neville’s oeuvre? Start with any of the following: Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, 20 Feet from Stardom, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, or Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal. You won’t be disappointed by any of these films he directed, and you will have only scratched the surface of an extraordinarily productive career. And when you’re done, watch 20 Feet from Stardom again and listen to Darlene Love’s musical description of New York at Christmastime as though you’ve never heard it before. “Pretty lights on the street,” indeed.

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