If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember Evel Knievel, a daredevil motorcyclist who became a major media celebrity in the 1970s and was even played in a minor movie by George Hamilton. But chances are that to the younger generation mention of the name will be met with a puzzled stare. Happily Daniel Junge’s spiffy documentary should appeal to both groups, being both admirably informative and a telling trip down memory lane.
In overall terms “Being Evel” is a conventional blend of found footage, archival material, and interview excerpts from relatives, colleagues, friends and commentators (including sports announcers, the wife he frequently cheated on, Hamilton and Johnny Knoxville, who found Knievel an inspiration and co-produced the documentary). But the combination is marked by sharp editing (by Davis Coombe) that moves keeps things moving at a brisk clip and by a willingness to confront the man’s dark side, not only in the remarks Knievel himself made in revealing news interviews but in the reminiscences of his widow and their two sons, both of whom seem to be somewhat scarred by the experience of living with him.
And while the picture efficiently covers Knievel’s rough upbringing in Montana, his reckless teen years, the self-promotion that first got him noticed on a small scale, his imitation of such flamboyant figures as Elvis and Liberace, his emergence as a pop hero with appearances with Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett (as well as numerous segments on ABC’s Wide World of Sports), and the injuries he suffered in the myriad stunts that went wrong—as well as his fall from adulation after the flameout of his spectacular “rocket ship” attempt to span the Snake River Canyon and his subsequent conviction for assaulting a PR man who wrote a tell-all book on that event—it’s also successful in situating his career in a broader context. It makes a strong case for viewing him as the initiator of the “extreme sports” movement that’s such much a part of contemporary culture, and as the inspiration for the elaborate action figures that are a staple of the toy industry today. It also cannily places him against the socio-political crises of the time—widespread demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the public disaffection with politics resulting from the Watergate affair—that sharpened people’s search for someone who represented a “can do” attitude and straightforward manner. That’s why the suggestion that the Snake River failure was the result of Knievel’s own action that caused many fans to turn against him—and led him to pursue rough justice against the previous employee who printed the allegation.
“Being Evel” is an incisive portrait of a charismatic showman who captivated people with death-defying stunts and, as Knoxville shows, proved a harbinger of a type of public entertainment that’s as old as the Roman games and is increasingly being integrated into such establishment events as the Olympics. Even if you think his success represented a decline in American popular taste, Junge has fashioned an entertaining film that’s both a revealing profile of the man and a thought-provoking reflection on his broader cultural significance.