Evel Knievel, the seemingly indestructible motorcycle riding daredevil as famous for his spectacular failures as his death-defying successes, has been given the documentary treatment with Being Evel, directed by Daniel Junge and written by Junge and David Coombe.
Tightly edited and aided by a terrific rock and country soundtrack, Being Evel gives snapshots of American life and culture of the era that are often overshadowed by the cultural and political turbulence of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Neither of those are absent here, mind you, but there’s a charming quaintness to the image of Evel Knievel as a red, white, and blue superhero who sprang from Middle America on his Harley Davidson, a master showman looking to entertain crowds by putting his life on the line, even as he harbored his own rock n’ roll dark side.
Told with archival footage (and plenty of slow-motion replays of crashes that miraculously never killed anyone) and recollections from the people who knew him best, Being Evel is at its absolute strongest in its first hour. Tales of the young Robert Knievel, professional juvenile delinquent and jerk of all trades are told by blood relatives and the Butte, Montana cops who had to lock him up. His earliest triumphs and smash-ups as a daredevil are shown via home movies before we’re treated to the iconic moments that rocketed him to stardom with clips from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and that legendary Caesar’s Palace smash-up, which left him hospitalized for a month.
But just as the Rolling Stones had Altamont, so Evel Knievel had Snake River Canyon, and this is where Being Evel is at its absolute best. The documentary does a masterful job of building up the suspense over Knievel’s quest to make the one mile jump across Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket, with a rowdy, intoxicated crowd of 30,000 people in attendance. There’s no shortage of firsthand accounts here, with everyone from Evel’s inner circle to the police to the high school marching band helping to tell the whole story.
While Being Evel doesn’t get too deep into the more salacious details of the icon’s personal life, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that whatever ugliness is seen and heard on screen, there was probably more behind the scenes. It’s tough not to get a dark chuckle out of George Hamilton’s recounting of a drunken Knievel holding a gun to the actor’s head demanding a private reading of the ill-fated Evel Knievel movie that Hamilton was set to star in. Hamilton amusedly recalls this command performance as Oscar worthy. That film, of course, was not.
So much of Being Evel‘s economical 102 minutes is spent on the exhilarating and suspenseful retelling of his public career that when it comes time to examine his darker reality, things start to get a little uneven. Evel’s influence on extreme sports, modern daredevils, and jokesters like Johnny Knoxville (who also gets a producer credit) and his Jackass crew are all examined, interspersed with footage of Knievel, in failing health, quietly trying to make up for past wrongs, knowing that the end is near. It’s easy to pity the frail old man at the end of his life who can’t even make it through an interview, but it’s an almost disorienting shift in documentary time from the man who went to prison for breaking the arms of his former publicist with a baseball bat.
“Life’s pretty tough…You need your heroes,” Knoxville earnestly tells the camera at one point. He’s right. And the flaws of the real, human ones are often tough to reconcile with the legends. Being Evel manages to do it, encompassing the thrill of his colorful public life, the fictionalized Evel of movies and action figures, and the ultimately mortal Robert Craig Knievel.
Being Evel is available on VOD. It’s playing in select theaters now.