Upon first thought, maybe we shouldn’t champion the man that inspired Johnny Knoxville to unleash Jackass upon the world. But if you were alive in the 1970s, there was no bigger American hero than Evel Knievel, the flamboyant, brash stunt-man who was truly a one-of-a-kind spectacle. Even in passing, most of us know or have heard of Evel Knievel, but the wonder of Being Evel (opening today), is that it gives us a great picture – and a memory jog – of just how influential Evel Knievel was, and still is.
If you grew up in the 70s, don’t act like you didn’t have the Evel Knievel toy motorcycle and stunt set. He was the world’s first Reality TV star, the first to popularize shock-entertainment. He birthed an entire genre of sport – “X Games” or extreme sports or whatever you want to call it. Seven of the ten highest-rated episodes of The Wide World of Sports featured Knievel attempting some new, impossible stunt. “Nobody wants to see me die, but they don’t want to miss it if I do,” he once said. Shows like Fear Factor – or really any Reality TV show – owes a nod to Evel Knievel. He also was one of the first popular American entertainers to take licensing his likeness and image to new heights. Those toys I mentioned? Some of the best-selling toys of all-time.
This documentary goes through the normal motions, from baby photos on up, filling in details of his life as seen and told through the eyes of those around him, and those he influenced. Evel Knievel died from pulmonary disease back in 2007, but anyone who knows anything about him knows that having even lived through the 70s was somewhat just short of a miracle.
Here’s a guy who attempted (not always successfully) crazy-insane motorcycle jumps, and who once tried to man a steam-powered rocket that was launched out over Snake River Canyon, Idaho. A guy who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the most broken bones in his body. A man that captured the spirit and the obsession of the American public at a time, post-Vietnam and post-Watergate, where a hero riding in with a white hat and white suit was desperately needed.
But few may have known how shrewd a businessman – some would say “con-man” – Evel was. The red, white and blue colors that he was famous for were specific, thought-out choices he made, knowing that the country needed something to believe in. He conned his way into much of his early career, leading up to his famous (failed) jump over the fountains in front of Caesars Palace in Vegas, where his epic wipe-out made him an instant object of public affection and wonder.
He didn’t care what others thought and was a true death-defying rebel, in every sense. Being Evel though, isn’t your typical kiss-ass biography: Here, as the poster for the film says, is the good, the bad…the Evel. Think he’s a hero? Consider that he married his long-time wife after literally grabbing her, throwing her onto his motorcycle and taking her up to the court to get married. It took her several years to ponder the thought: Had I been kidnapped? After publishing a book about Evel that many close to him say was 100% true, Knievel beat his one-time partner with a bat, breaking both of his arms and being sent to jail. “I’ll tell you one thing, he will never write anything bad about me again,” said a remorseless Knievel.
His bravado and unique insanity makes Evel Knievel a great subject for a documentary. If there is any drawback at all, it’s that we don’t get to hear any of this from the horse’s mouth. Mixing in several old clips – including a few memorable appearances with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show – it wasn’t like Evel was hiding too much. Still, for a documentary called Being Evel, it would have been nice to try to put a finger on and understand what exactly made this mad-man tick. The “why” to go along with the “who” and the “what.”
But Being Evel is the sort of documentary you didn’t realize you needed until it was made. Evel Knievel deserves recognition, and credit, for many aspects of our current culture, and any good, bad – or Evel – associated with it.
Run Time: 1 hours, 38 minutes, Not Rated
Featuring: Evel Knievel, Robbie Knievel, Frank Gifford, George Hamilton
Directed by Daniel Junge (A LEGO Brickumentary, Saving Face, Fight Church)
Opens locally on Friday, Aug 21, 2015 (check for show times).