Opening this weekend at Harkins Shea:
Being Evel—Johnny Knoxville was both an executive producer and a talking head for this documentary about ‘60s-and-‘70s-era motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, which of course makes perfect sense. It never occurred to me, but Knievel is regarded as a major influence on both the “extreme sports” movement and the Jackass culture of idiotically risky and painful stunts as comedic performance art.
For the uninitiated, or the young: Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel was a hell-raising kid from Butte, Montana who started doing gimmicky, insanely unsafe motorcycle stunts up and down the Pacific coast in the ‘60s. After ABC Sports aired footage of his (unsuccessful) 1967 jump of the fountains outside Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, he rose to mega-stardom and fortune, in no small measure through the adulation of preadolescent boys and their enthusiasm for a licensed Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle toy from Ideal.
I was around 10 at the height of Knievel-mania, and I remember it vividly. I wasn’t particularly a fan myself, but my best friend and several other kids I knew idolized Knievel and we saw him all the time on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I have an especially clear memory of watching him flawlessly execute a jump over a row of trucks—the footage is in Being Evel—and of my Mom saying “He did it! That was right pretty.”
It wasn’t always. Many of Knievel’s stunts ended in injurious wipe-outs. Most famous among these was his 1974 debacle at Idaho’s Snake River Canyon—the Department of the Interior had denied him permission to jump the Grand Canyon—not in a motorcycle but in a steam-powered rocket. Knievel suffered both physically and mentally from these ridiculous risks, and eventually became paranoid and unstable. Hubris, violence, jail time, loss of fortune and illness ensued.
Being Evel was directed by Daniel Junge, who co-directed the recent Lego Brickumentary, and like that film it’s presented in a slick, graphically flashy, somewhat impersonal style. Unlike the Brickumentary, however, it has a human charge—Knievel’s scary aggression and his pathos, neither of which were so easily spotted by kids back in the ‘70s, come across here big time.
Other talking heads include pals from Knievel’s youth, his outrageously long-suffering wife, his kids, his publicists. We even hear from George Hamilton, who played the title role in 1971’s Evel Knievel (seemingly irked at the usurpation of his persona, Knievel later played himself in 1977’s Viva Knievel!). Many of these commentators, even those Knievel had alienated, describe him as a hero who came along during a time of national ennui—Vietnam, civil rights struggles, student protests, etc.
It’s probably true that, to that part of the American psyche that preferred a distraction from such conflicts, Knievel had the right qualifications for a hero: Undeniable bravery in service of profit and popularity, and braggadocio wrapped in a banal and superficial patriotism. But I don’t know that it’s a truth to be celebrated.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m certainly not puritan enough to claim that risk to life and limb, undertaken by an adult of reasonably sound mind, can have no place in entertainment. I’ve enjoyed too many Jackie Chan movies. But to suggest that Knievel’s act was more than canny and self-serving showmanship is to push even the fond and nostalgic memories one might have of his heyday a bit far.
Also, the degree to which his popularity hinged on morbid curiosity shouldn’t be underrated. As I said before, I remember my Mom saying “That was right pretty” after we watched Knievel land a jump back then. I also, full disclosure, remember the pang of disappointment that went through my evil little boy’s heart that I hadn’t gotten to see a crash. Knievel was apparently well aware of this aspect of his appeal. In Being Evel, one of his old cronies remembers him saying “Nobody wants me to get killed, but nobody wants to miss it if I do.”