Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown Looks for Real Miami

When sexy bad boy and self-proclaimed old man Anthony Bourdain heads to your town and invites nearly every person in town (unless you're in the media, ahem) to appear on his incredibly popular CNN show, Parts Unknown, you watch the damn thing when it airs.

I figured as a sort of Miami expert, I’d offer some insight into the results of his ambitious endeavor. 

I don't brag enough about this, but I appeared in the Miami episode of Louie, and they filmed in the backyard of my old house. But in that episode, Louis CK does the thing you need to do to “capture” Miami: He uses poetry. But Bourdain doesn't have the luxury of creating a bromance story line to reveal what hides underneath our sunny skyline.

The show starts with the line "Miami sneaks up on you. Or do we change and find ourselves sneaking up, washing up, ending up in Miami?" I would say the former is true. The latter is insulting. The word "seduction" is used, and I wanted to barf a little. But the truth is, Miami is a seductive place where the world comes to get its pee-pee wet. Bourdain says, "Miami is the kind of place you say, ‘That could never be me,’ and then it is."

But the writers of Parts Unknown certainly did their homework. Bourdain and his crew did their best to offer a peek at its many moving parts. The boat people, for instance: Many of us grew up going to Coconut Grove and meeting the barefoot and sometimes-illiterate children of the boat folk. Did we know their real stories? Not so much. And when Bourdain sits down with Captain Bob, one of the remaining relics of this subculture on his "piece of iron," they use him as a way to show how the city is changing — how old, superweird Miami is being pushed into the past by developers.

This was a particularly dramatic episode of Parts Unknown. The audio in the beginning sounded a bit like a rejected Bikram soundtrack. That added to some choice shots of the strangest, most fashionable people who live in this town, and it felt a little like they were mocking us. Miami doesn't need that atmospheric, ambient sound to show how fabulous and different we are. Miami lends itself to beautiful shots of interesting (read: crazy) people and landscapes, and that’s what makes us special.
God bless celeb chef Michelle Bernstein for bringing Bourdain to an Exxon in Doral. The suburbs of Miami are certainly not like the burbs of any other American city. The slow-mo colada segment is pretty sensual and terribly Miami. Bernstein and Bourdain agree when lunching at Islas Canarias that "you can pretty much get away with almost anything" in Miami. In a way, that sets the tone for the show. It paints us as outcasts. And, well, that’s not untrue. But we’re outcasts who like to be here, for the most part. The Magic City wasn’t thrust upon us and we just laid back and took it. We live in this place.

The show threads the town's fragmented history throughout the eating and drinking and pontificating. So there's an odd attempt to balance the historic with the present. And again, if there's one thing that's hard to do, it's explain Miami without resorting to tired metaphors, and I think that was sort of missing and made the historical stuff feel like a PBS special. As a huge fan of public television, I liked it.

Bourdain spends a nice chunk of time attempting to uncover Miami music. The episode begins with a party with Miami party people galore — there's promoter Nassie Shahoulian, Juleisy y Karla — the most fabulous Miami drag queens of all time — music maker Mr. Feathers, beat master Otto Von Schirach, and even my friend Richard Chang, who actually lives in New York (shoutout!). But they don't really delve into the artsy nightlife experience of Miami, just reference it in a passing montage.
Naturally, Bourdain hits up the Deuce, his favorite Miami spot with women sucking on cigarettes and pervs playing pool; there’s nothing not to like about this dive. He chats with the owner, 100-year-old Mac Klein, and then goes into the history of Miami Beach as a place that World War II troops brought to life. See? Very PBS. "Miami's turned over six times since I've been here," Klein says. I still wonder if Bourdain has been to Churchill's, and if not, why?

Then they talk about cocaine — yes, cocaine built Miami, we know — with filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, naturally. They give a good Cocaine Cowboys plug; then they reveal that cocaine also saved the city. I'm not sure if they're at Versailles or Joe's Stone Crab. Billy, can ya chime in? Our outlaw nature gets spotlighted not by Mickey Munday but by the guys who, like Bourdain, document them. 

There’s a shot of Bourdain on the beach in a patent-leather-looking Speedo. Just worth a mention here.

Then he lunches with the very admirable Questlove at Yardbird, but you know, he’s not a local. I guess if you want to see Questlove, catch him at Yardbird — he says he's always there. There’s this weird moment when Bourdain asks him about the Miami sound. The drummer is certainly one of the smartest dudes in pop culture, but Miami isn't his city. His response is about as acceptable as Yardbird’s menu, I suppose: "The beginning of really great dance music." I have tons of respect for Questlove, but at this point I was thinking, More Speedo, less Jethro Tull talk.
And then, thank baby Jesus, Bourdain hits up Liberty City with Uncle Luke. “Black Miami" gets a nice chunk of attention, and, man, does it look cool. It’s like an early Gunplay video with people riding urban ATVs. He and Luther Campbell, formerly of 2 Live Crew and current New Times columnist, chow at MLK Restaurant. Luke is a wonderful ambassador for this city. He even brings up getting out the black vote and how important that would have been for Charlie Crist to win. Asked about Miami music, Campbell, who created a genre in this town, talks about the sexy side of things: "They put they butt on you," he illuminates. "I've seen this on television," Bourdain says. A stop at Little Haiti’s B&M Market showcases jerk chicken, curried goat, and cow foot soup. He’s lunching with Michy again. She’s right on the money with her Miami complaint: No one returns friendly greetings on the street. Then Bourdain asks if it’s true that people who live here don’t go to the beach. Now, no, we don’t, but we live on the bay and the canals and the sea air is all around us, as she rightfully points out. Stop trying to make us look bad, Anthony.

Props again to Bourdain’s people for covering the actual "Miami sound" by chilling with Deep City Records' Willie Clarke at what was once Johnny's Records Shop. He even gives mention the great Clarence Reid, AKA filthy-mouthed Blowfly. Clarke finally reveals something real about what separates music made in Miami from elsewhere: the Bahamian influence. Naturally, Bahamian for the Miami sound, but Caribbean generally, and he also touches on the idea of movement and dance coming from the islands – much like our nasty-as-he-wanna-be Uncle Luke did.

There’s a wonderful moment when they capture Helene Smith, an a cappella songstress in a Deep City shirt, singing. It shows that Miami's got that good culture.
So again Bourdain starts to shit on the city in the voiceover by saying people think, That could never be me, about living here. Bourdain cannot grasp why his idol, Iggy Pop, would live here except that he’s an old dude now. Pop explains the reason he first came here was his shady friend owned a condo and he thought, This is a nice little trashy hang. He says what he sees here is "the end of complications," "safe and free,” and describes a Miami morning in detail. What is it? Poetry! Yes!

Finally, you get an idea of what Miami is through the dancing words of a rock god. Heavenly and seemingly contradictory, it’s a perfect Miami moment.

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Liz Tracy has written for publications such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Refinery29, W, Glamour, and, of course, Miami New Times. She was New Times Broward-Palm Beach's music editor for three years. Now she plays one mean monster with her 2-year-old son and obsessively watches British mysteries.
Contact: Liz Tracy