Evel Knievel arrived just when our culture needed him.
The wounds from the Vietnam War were still raw. President Nixon’s fall made us mistrust authority. Then along came a star-spangled stuntman without a lick of fear. Or so it seemed.
“Being Evel” recalls one of pop culture’s singular sensations. This excellent new documentary corrals all the voices necessary to describe its subject, a Midwestern soul in search of fame and a father figure. He never got the latter — his parents essentially stepped out early on, leaving his grandparents to raise him. But boy, did he enjoy the former. Women. Talk show infamy. And, of course, the roar of the crowd as he put his life on the line over and again.
Knievel grew up in Butte, Montana, “a tough ass mining town,” as co-producer and fellow daredevil Johnny Knoxville puts it. Knievel longed to connect with his father, but when daddy wasn’t there he was left to his own devices. It wasn’t pretty. He was a small-town thug, to hear some former residents tell it.
He did love his motorcycle, the vehicle that would bring him roaring into our living rooms. Knievel started out modestly, jumping over a few buses but drawing little attention. It took a nasty crash after leaping over Caesars Palace fountain to cement his stardom. That video footage, his body bouncing on the hard ground after the landing, caught America’s eye. Suddenly, an Evel Knievel jump was must-see TV, courtesy of ABCs’ “Wide World of Sports.”
He spoke in flat, assured tones while drumming up interest in his next stunt. He wasn’t a natural showman, but he understood what the public craved. Broken bones became his stock in trade. Blunt talk was his instrument along with that motorcycle. Admirers swore he had remarkable healing powers. To a point.
“Being Evel” captures the flavor of the 1970s, both the glitz and the hokey fashions. Director Daniel Junge balances the need for Evel-like spectacle with narrative clarity.
He wasn’t a natural showman, but he understood what the public craved.
“I was a little crazy. He was a whole lot crazy,” says Geraldo Rivera, looking back on someone he considered a hero.
Knievel would blow up at the press and threaten those who dared to interrupt his life story. George Hamilton, who played Knievel in a movie, recalls how the stuntman held a gun to his head and told him to read him the script in person before production began. Hamilton, a producer on the film, could laugh about the incident now.
Knievel wasn’t a family-friendly attraction. Yes, he wore the stars and stripes proudly, but his entourage included hard-drinking souls and even the Hell’s Angels. He went on to attack a promoter with a baseball bat … without apology. At the end of his life, he tried to make amends for his ways. But he didn’t have enough years left to undo the damage.
The documentary’s emotional highlight comes when Knievel summons his children before his attempt to jump Snake River Canyon in 1974, his most audacious stunt. His adult children remember the moment, choking back tears at how Daddy prepared them for his possible death. Junge captures every aspect of that spectacle, from the media frenzy to the potential dangers lurking on the ground, and in the air.
It didn’t matter than Knievel often failed while the X-Games generation, inspired by his antics, has had better luck. He tried, and tried again. And we loved him for it. Even when his son Robbie Knievel topped his records, he couldn’t achieve what his father did. Daddy got bloody, and broke some bones, in the process. That’s what train-wreck-loving fans demanded, the film argues. Then the elder Knievel retired. And retired again. His shattered body could only take so much. What else could he do? Not much. Turns out he was poorly equipped for life after stunt work.
“Being Evel” doesn’t shrink from its subject’s dark side. It brings grit and context to his life story. Best of all, nearly every talking head in the film speaks bluntly about Knievel, even though you’ll wish the man himself had opened up about his fears. Yes, Knievel was afraid before his famous stunts. His posse could see it in his face, in his walk, but he never showed it to the public.
“Being Evel” lets us see the real Evel Knievel, sundry warts and all. He’s still a sight to behold, even via vintage footage.
And he makes Knoxville’s “Jackass,” the MTV show in which crazy thrill seekers hurt themselves on purpose, look pretty silly.