Anthony Bourdain spoke about Detroit as a place with an authenticity and attitude that impressed even a globe-trotting food star.
“I’d love to be able to say that I came from Detroit,” he told the Free Press in 2016 while in town for a speaking tour. “That would be like the coolest thing I could ever say.”
Bourdain, who died of suicide last year, left a legacy of affection and goodwill toward Detroit — and one last gift to a city he loved. A four-part documentary series on the Motor City that he executive produced is all but finished, and now it’s in search of a network or streaming home.
Bourdain’s longtime producer Lydia Tenaglia has been working since January to find a buyer to bring the four hours of programming to viewers.
Tenaglia describes the show as a “passion project” for Bourdain, the chef-turned-TV personality who brought remarkable depth of thought to culinary-themed programming. The rough-cut version, which blends new interviews and archival footage, is a vivid exploration of events that shaped Detroit. There’s an urgency and inevitability to the city’s journey that speaks volumes on where we are now, for better or worse, as a nation.
This limited series, in some ways, represents a final chapter of Bourdain’s creative vision. It also hints at how his career might have expanded if he’d kept pursuing his other interests, which included American history.
“My determination to get a home for this project has not waned in the slightest. I’m really focused on getting it out there,” says Tenaglia. “It’s a really beautifully executed piece of television.”
IT BEGAN WITH ‘ONCE IN A GREAT CITY’
The journey of the documentary stretches back to “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” the acclaimed 2015 book by Pulitzer winner David Maraniss. A gripping saga of the political, racial, economic and cultural tapestry of the city, it focused on the crucial years of 1962 to 1964 and chronicled the rise of icons ranging from Lee Iacocca to Berry Gordy Jr.
Critics praised Maraniss for his illuminating look at an era of industrial might and creative promise that rested precariously on a corrosive foundation of systemic racial inequality.
“Using overlapping portraits of Detroiters (from politicians to musicians to auto execs), he creates a mosaiclike picture of the city that has the sort of intimacy and tactile emotion that Larry McMurtry brought to his depictions of the Old West, and the gritty sweep of David Simon’s HBO series ‘The Wire.’” wrote Michiko Kakutani in her review for the New York Times.
Bourdain was captivated by what he read in “Once In a Great City.”
“He brought the book here to Zero Point Zero and said, ‘This is an amazing book,’ “ says Tenaglia, co-founder of the New York-based production company and a collaborator with Bourdain on three shows: “A Cook’s Tour” (Food Network), “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (Travel Channel), and “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which launched in 2013 on CNN and ran until his death.
Bourdain already had helped produce a Zero Point Zero documentary, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” about an overlooked legend among chefs. It premiered in 2016 at the Tribeca Film Festival and aired in 2017 on CNN.
Tenaglia says she wasn’t surprised that Bourdain wanted to shift gears and transform an immense, complex historical narrative like Maraniss’ into something visual.
“First of all, Tony was an enormously deep reader of history. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history. When he became fascinated with a place, he would then do deep dives and begin reading about them,” she says.
Bourdain also was an epic fan of Detroit. He covered the city — and Buffalo and Baltimore — in a 2009 episode of “No Reservations.” It featured stops at Polonia and the Family Donut Shop in Hamtramck, Al-Ameer in Dearborn and Detroit’s Cadieux Cafe.
But it was 2013’s “Parts Unknown” episode about Detroit that really sparked his interest, according to Tenaglia.
“From his perspective, you can’t help but cover some of the challenges that the city faced, but he also deeply felt the renaissance — and the potential for enormous renaissance — that was constantly percolating on the streets there,” she says.
That episode, like most of Bourdain’s work, was both unvarnished and loving. In her review, the late Free Press restaurant critic Sylvia Rector wrote that he “proves himself to be a romantic, unabashed admirer of Detroit’s history, spirit and resiliency — even as he declares it “utterly screwed” and compares it to Chernobyl … ”
Two years later, when “Once In A Great City” was published, the sparks Bourdain felt for Detroit turned into a blaze of enthusiasm for adapting the book.
Bourdain spoke twice in person with Maraniss, once at a meeting at Zero Point Zero in New York and again in Washington, D.C., when he was there for a speaking tour.
“In both conversations, I was impressed by his understanding of Detroit beyond the stereotypes, his affection for the city, and his hope to present a documentary series that could accurately capture the sensibility of my book,” says Maraniss via email.
The author and Washington Post editor wound up serving as a consultant on the Bourdain project and provided ideas and documents, along with contact information. Maraniss also traveled to Detroit for a day of filming.
“Beyond that, I trusted ZPZ and director Toby Oppenheimer (of “Parts Unknown”) to get it right,” he says.
FROM JFK’S VISIT TO THE MUSTANG’S DEBUT
The four-part documentary (which could be end up being titled “Once in a Great City: Detroit” or perhaps “Detroit: Once in a Great City,” according to Tenaglia) begins in the first episode with President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech in downtown Detroit, then the powerful automotive capital of America.
It concludes in episode four with JFK’s assassination in late 1963, the debut of the Mustang in spring 1964 and the signs of unrest and upheaval that would lead to the turbulent rebellion of the summer of 1967 (which is covered briefly in a flash-forward, as is contemporary Detroit).
The project first was conceived and pitched as a 90-minute documentary. But given the extent of characters and events that needed to be covered, Tenaglia pushed hard to make it a multipart show. Each of the four episodes are aimed for a one-hour time slot.
Interviews were filmed with numerous subjects, including Detroit writer and historian Marsha Music, former police chief Isaiah McKinnon, original Four Tops member Duke Fakir, Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Contours lead singer Joe Billingslea, author Herb Boyd, music producer Don Was, author Heather Anne Thompson and songwriter Allee Willis.
One of the treasures of the series is an interview with Aretha Franklin done a few months before her death. Looking regal but fatigued, the Queen of Soul marshaled her strength to talk about her influential father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a religious and political leader of Detroit who formed an alliance with another reverend, Martin Luther King Jr., to help spread the civil rights movement in the North.
Describing how her father grew up in Mississippi and worked the cotton fields, Franklin says, “He knew there was a better life ahead somewhere.”
Although Bourdain was definitely involved in the project, it was in off-camera ways. He doesn’t appear in the series, nor does he narrate it (and there is no narrator). Instead, he served as a behind-the-scenes force as an executive producer while maintaining his usual “Parts Unknown” schedule.
“He was hands-on to the extent that we sent him all the outlines for the proposed episodes,” says Tenaglia. Bourdain continued to be in the loop when the outlines were refined into detailed treatments. He watched and commented on rough cuts. And Bourdain liked Tenaglia’s idea of targeting other cities for the same approach — an option that still could turn the Detroit installments into part of a continuing series.
In 2017, CNN announced that Bourdain would be producing a four-part historical documentary series for the cable news channel about Detroit. Bourdain had hinted at the project in an interview with the Free Press the previous year, saying then that he was working on “a fairly sizable project that would encompass more than an hour of television.”
The whole project took about a year’s worth of work, from pre-production to the massive job of archival research for photos and videos to the filming of interviews to the editing process.
Tenaglia says there were four editors working simultaneously at one point, a process that sometimes involved them figuring out what elements worked best in which episodes. “It was a constant work in motion, where none of the four editors were siloed off. It was as if we were working on one big piece simultaneously,” she says.
The documentary’s team was immersed in the finishing details. Then Bourdain died.
“The world got turned upside down, certainly in terms of projects we were doing with him and he was associated with. … He was really the executive producer of the project and the one who was championing it and and the one who was going to put his marketing muscle behind it,” says Tenaglia.
At the time of Bourdain’s death, filming had been completed, the rough cuts were done and the documentary’s team was “very, very deep into the fine-cutting of four episodes,” explains Tenaglia. An unresolved element remained — the licensing of Motown music for use in the final product.
“We included Motown music very sparingly and very pointedly,” says Tenaglia, estimating that about 3 minutes are used across four one-hour episodes.
Tenaglia said her team hit impediments to the licensing, and that “there were other projects, I think, in the works that made it rather challenging for us,” she adds, declining to go into specifics. One prominent Motown-centric project, Showtime’s “Hitsville: The Making of Motown” documentary, premiered on Aug. 24.
CNN was looking to air the Detroit project before the end of 2018. But given the licensing issue, several more months would be needed to finish the process.
With work needing to stretch into 2019 and the devastating loss of Bourdain, the project’s champion, CNN felt the timing wouldn’t be right for the series.
According to Tenaglia, CNN agreed to let her search for a new home for it. “We came to a verbal agreement that we would be allowed, Zero Point Zero would be allowed, to go ahead and try to find another home for the series,” she says, calling the network’s decision a generous one.
The Free Press was unable to reach the CNN executive who could speak about the project.
Tenaglia says her quest is driven by the quality of the work, and the sense of finality of it. “This is one of the last things we were working on together aside from the ‘Parts Unknown’ episodes which we completed and got on air,” she says.
“This was the last project we were working on, physically, tangibly, that the world can see.”
LOOKING FOR A HOME
Tenaglia doesn’t want to reveal the names of companies she has approached regarding the project. There are likely a handful of appropriate places in the broadcast and streaming landscape for a thoughtful, yet vivid historical overview like this.
On paper, she and her her team have put together a series concept that would carry the idea forward to other cities. “That’s the way I’m also hoping potentially to broach it with a buyer.”
She says there currently is “very strong interest” from a party that she doesn’t identify.
Although the licensing matter with Motown isn’t yet resolved, she says that she has reached the right person to “bridge the gap” to licensing the music. Once there is a committed buyer, she doesn’t foresee any problems with moving ahead quickly.
The budget, characterized as manageable for the scope of the project, was in the seven-figure range, according to Tenaglia. But it’s clear that there is more at stake here than monetary concerns.
Tenaglia is convinced Bourdain would have wanted to do more documentaries on themes outside the culinary world. “This Detroit piece was definitely moving more in a direction, and a reflection of, his wide-ranging interest. … We, in fact, were working on ideas that moved beyond just the food world.”
She praises the crew, from show runner Oppenheimer on down, for doing an amazing job on a difficult undertaking. “When it started to take shape between rough cut and fine cut, and you’re like, ‘Holy crap, we have an amazingly beautiful piece here that is deeply inspired by Maraniss’ book, but even pushed beyond that, it was really exciting. I think Tony thought, too, ‘This is fantastic and better than I could have imagined.’ “
Maraniss also likes what he’s seen. “I saw the film a few times as it was being made, and the basically finished product, and felt great about it. I think it did justice to my book and, more important to the city of Detroit. I hope it somehow sees the light of day.”
So, doubtless, do Bourdain’s army of fans. And for Detroiters, it could be meaningful in ways that could match Bourdain’s feelings for the city.
Speaking to the Free Press in 2016 about Detroit, Bourdain waxed poetic. “Beautiful. Magnificent. The boundless hope and dreams and optimism of its builders is reflected in the architecture.”
Continued Bourdain, “I feel anger seeing the extent to which it has been allowed to crumble. I feel hopeful. And I feel a tremendous appreciation that people have stuck it out and are proud of their city.”
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