With his flashy bravado and trademark red-white-and-blue jumpsuits (emblazoned with a typically understated “#1”), daredevil Robert “Evel” Knievel captured America’s imagination during one of the nation’s most trying times, when the entire country had lost faith in its political leaders and was involved in the quagmire of a seemingly endless foreign war. When things looked dire in an era long before extreme sports were widely broadcast, Knievel tapped into the zeitgeist with his record-breaking, death-defying thrills (and, just as many times, his bone-shattering spills) and his windswept, devil-may-care attitude. But what makes the new documentary “Being Evel” such a propulsive, rocket-powered kick is that it gets behind the swagger and investigates what drove the man to risk his life, time and time again. As Johnny Carson once put it, Knievel was “the only man in history who has become very wealthy by trying to kill himself.”
“Being Evel” is a pretty typical biographical documentary in format and execution, from the talking head interviews to the jazzy, scored-by-a-T.-Rex-song title sequence, throwing graphics and archival clips at you at a hundred miles-per-hour. But the documentary lets you know this from the beginning and the people that director Daniel Junge and producer Johnny Knoxville (who is also extensively interviewed throughout) have assembled are pretty stellar. Knievel was a character and he surrounded himself with equally colorful types, all of whom make excellent interview subjects. So, while it’s tempting to roll your eyes at the straightforwardness with which the documentary is put together (especially for such a flamboyantly oversized personality), “Being Evel” is also so rambunctious and entertaining that it’s hard to find fault in its execution.
The documentary starts at the beginning, with Knievel being raised by his grandparents in the working class town of Butte, Montana. This was a mining town, where men were men and solved their problems with fists and foul language. (One local also guessed that the prostitute population hovered around 2,000, which could explain Knievel’s somewhat barbaric attitude towards women.) Knievel’s long-suffering wife Linda explains that she was basically “kidnapped” and coerced into eloping with the rascal, whose nickname was given to him by a local lawman.
His entrance to his stunt work was just as unlikely as his success: he initially started doing jumps as a way to drum up interest at a Honda motorcycle dealership he was working at. It did that and more; he assembled a small troupe of performers who would do these wild tricks all around the country. But Knievel was tens of thousands of dollars in the hole, which kept him from making any money. He decided to split off on his own, making an inaugural splash by attempting to jump the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. A star, almost immediately, was born.
Everything came just as fast as one of his jumps: America, as one interviewee says, was “coming apart at the seams,” and welcomed Knievel into its arms; a real-life superhero. (He actually had a comic book dedicated to him and pages of it are seen in that bravado opening title sequence.) He was a frequent guest on television talk shows (there’s a clip with Dick Cavett where Knievel appears to be wearing a marbled black-and-white jumpsuit, and looks like the cover of a John Grisham paperback), had a line of best-selling toys (that looked pretty cool), had a “mythic” biographical feature film made about him that was written by legendary tough guy John Milius and performed by George Hamilton, and elevated licensing to an art form. (Hamilton, who is another producer of this documentary, tells an amazing story about Knievel, drunk and crazy in a Los Angeles motel, pressing a gun to his head and forcing him to recite the entire wordy script.) One person interviewed for the documentary marvels that “in seven years, he became one of the most famous people in the world.” For someone who had broken nearly every bone in his body, there was something off about Knievel in the head, and no amount of money or fame or women could fix it. He was like America: resilient and proud of it.
Knievel bought into his own larger-than-life image and treated people poorly, flying into a drunken rage at just about anybody. One of the more emotional aspects of the documentary is listening to his former wife Linda talk about how openly he was cheating on her (and how her children all knew about it, too). A former security man finally quit when he realized that, “I’m protecting the troublemaker from the good guys.” This all reached a head at Knievel’s infamous Snake River Canyon jump (this Idaho location was picked after the state department denied his requests to jump the Grand Canyon). As far as climaxes go, you couldn’t dream up a better one — Knievel was attempting to shoot himself over a gorge in a prototype, steam-powered rocket. The crowd that the event attracted was the worst of the worst; at one point one of the organizers tried to call in the National Guard, who ignored the request. The shiny idealism that Knievel inspired curdled and started to resemble who Knievel was inside. And on top of all that, he failed, his dinky rocket plummeting dizzyingly into the river below.
From there, Knievel’s downfall was just as whiplash-inducing as his ascension, with some labeling the Snake River Canyon jump a fraud (“The Great Rip-off of 1974”), leaving America to sell his shtick to Europe and when that didn’t work, returning home, only to end up in jail for beating a former tour manager with an aluminum baseball bat (for writing a comparatively PG-rated tell-all about the events leading up to the Snake River Canyon debacle). Knievel eventually died, sick and sad and mostly alone, having alienated most of the people who ever gave a damn about him. In the documentary Linda remarks, with the pain still sparkling behind her eyes, “The first time I heard him say ‘I’m sorry,’ he was pretty much on his death bed.”
Yes, he was a shit. But what the documentary eloquently illuminates, is that he was a shit who was also hugely influential, not only in the extreme sports culture that achieved mainstream saturation in the ’90s, but in how athletes and amateurs market and present themselves to the world. This was a man whose brand was his name and who inspired countless Americans to tap into their wild side, even if they never got on top of a motorcycle or screeched across the sky in a homemade spacecraft. Watching clips of Knoxville and his contemporaries, his indelible mark can be felt in a profound way. While he certainly could have been a better human being, there’s no way on earth, even with all the fighting and drinking and womanizing, that he could have been a better showman. The documentary, like its subject, is unapologetically dazzling. A wild, wooly strut through a period in American history when the country rallied around a man who would probably, at the end of the broadcast, be lying unconscious at the end of the runway, ready to get up and do it again the very next night. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.