Packing a great deal of story into a one-hour package, “Pure Evel: American Legend” tells us as much about where we are now as it does daredevil motorcyclist and ‘70s icon Evel Knievel. Huckster, showman and — in the words of a biographer — in the “Hall of Fame for hedonists,” Knievel pioneered a wedding of TV and extreme sports that has become common currency, as well as a flag-waving streak that played perfectly as a counterpoint to Vietnam-era unrest. Both history and a fascinating profile, “Pure Evel” — timed to what would have been Knievel’s 75th birthday — is purely entertaining.
The documentary begins with Knievel’s disastrous jump at the Snake River Canyon, then goes back to the beginning, and how this Montana-born cowboy and one-time insurance salesman, “driven by ego and fearlessness,” parlayed those qualities into enormous wealth and fame.
As the production makes clear, though, Knievel’s death-defying jumps were characterized as much by the agony of defeat (in this case, crashing and sustaining injuries) as the thrill of victory — borrowing from the catchphrase popularized by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” an entity with which Knievel forged a symbiotic relationship, at one point accounting for seven of its 10 top-rated telecasts.
Yet Knievel’s marketing savvy — which included, hilariously, a wildly popular toy line — was also accompanied by other appetites, foremost among them boozing, womanizing and abusing his crews. He also did jail time for administering a beating using a baseball bat to a former employee who dared write a book about him.
What might be most interesting about “Pure Evel” — even more than Knievel’s conversation to Christianity months before his death in 2007 — is how much the daredevil’s routine sounds like it was conceived right now. His mixture of excess, self-promotion and manipulating the media almost reads like a textbook for the Kardashians and any number of others those are famous for being famous.
The Knievel story could have easily accommodated another hour, but in this form it’s tight and tasty. Besides, for all those out there hoping to turn ego and fearlessness into their 15 minutes of fame, “Pure Evel” isn’t just history; it’s homework.