An exercise in hero worship that doesn’t shy away from its subject’s least admirable traits, “Being Evel” attempts to deliver a complex portrait of a man who preferred to be seen as a self-styled myth. In some ways that’s a cinematic daredevil act worthy of Evel Knievel himself, and even if Daniel Junge’s documentary falls a bit short of its goal, it deserves points for trying. Produced by and essentially starring Knievel fan Johnny Knoxville as lead talking head, the Sundance-premiered pic has above-average marketability as a platform-release docu, though it should connect more strongly with its base on the smallscreen.
Opening with Knievel’s 1973 appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” “Being Evel” immediately gets across the charisma and showmanship at the heart of his improbable success. Knievel made a career out of ridiculous stunts — like a botched attempt to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace in Vegas that saw him spectacularly fail to nail the landing and instead wipe out on the asphalt — and rose to fame with multiple appearances on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” As Carson cracks in his introduction, “He’s probably the only man in history who’s become very wealthy by trying to kill himself.”
He was also ahead of the curve when it came to branding, getting his own toy line, comicbook and even a notoriously terrible 1971 biopic, “Evel Knievel,” starring George Hamilton (who is one of many lively talking heads featured here, and recounts a wild story of a drunk Knievel brandishing a gun and demanding the thesp read him the movie’s script in its entirety).
Most of this material — including anecdotes about Knievel’s early motorcycle stunts, his rough-and-tumble youth in Butte, Mont., and the origins of his memorable moniker — is spun like a folksy tall tale, with an admiring kind of “Can you believe the cojones on this guy?” wink and grin underlying every detail. But the darker side of Knievel’s larger-than-life persona also emerges, especially among those who knew him best. It turns out that the combination of large amounts of alcohol, a weakness for anything in a skirt, and an obsession with insane stunts bordering on a death wish isn’t actually a recipe for the sort of all-American hero Knievel liked to portray himself as being.
In today’s environment, where a celebrity’s personal shortcomings command far more attention and interest than professional achievements, Knievel probably would be toast. Simply listening to his ex-wife Linda, who bluntly but not bitterly describes his wanton affairs and egomaniacal behavior, is enough to shatter any notion of the film’s subject as a man worthy of idolizing.
Even at the time, Knievel’s heyday was short-lived. He never recovered from the PR nightmare of a failed jump across the Snake River Canyon (his mighty rocket didn’t even launch), and he wound up doing jail time for brutally assaulting former business partner Shelly Saltman (another of the pic’s talking-head highlights) with a baseball bat. The reason? Saltman wrote an only mildly racy Knievel biography that the stuntman didn’t approve of. Imagine what he would’ve done to Junge.
Still, even if Knievel (who died in 2007) wouldn’t have appreciated seeing his dirty laundry aired for public consumption, he probably would’ve gotten a kick out of the rest of this fast-paced film. Junge and co-writer Coombe essentially credit him for launching the thriving arena of extreme sports, and testimony from longtime fans, including Knoxville and Tony Hawk, make it clear Knievel’s lasting influence is as outsized as his personality.
Tech credits are appropriately slick, especially Coombe’s snappy editing, which keeps the action flowing with an abundance of archival footage, and music supervisor Bruce Gilbert’s energetic selections.