If you were kid growing up in the late Seventies,
you were probably all about Stars Wars,
but if you were carrying a lunch box to school before 1976, there is a good
chance Evel Knievel was on it. Subsequent decades were hard on the self-styled
daredevil, but fans like skateboarding champion Tony Hawk and Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville still
remembered the tarnished icon. Daniel Junge revisits the highs and lows of
Knievel’s story in the Knoxville-produced Being
Evel (trailer here), which
opens this Friday in select theaters.
Butte, Montana was still a bit of a rugged
frontier town when young Knievel grew up there, but their cops were pretty
funny. According to legend, Knievel once spent a night in the holding cell with
a fellow troublemaking named Knoffle, prompting a deputy to dub them “Evil
Knievel and Awful Knoffle.” That worked for Knievel, after softening the “Evil”
with a second e.
One can find barnstorming precedents for
Knievel’s death-defying stunts, but Knievel came up at the perfect time to most
fully exploit the media. There were only three real networks in the 1970s, so
just about every sports fan watched the buffet-style coverage of ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Sunday mornings.
Somehow Knievel talked his way on as the opener for a dirt track race and quickly
became a media phenomenon.
Seeing docs like Being Evel reminds us just how much the media landscape has changed
within our lifetimes. It also explains the influence Knievel had on the
culture, inspiring the extreme sports movement of the 1990s and perfecting an unparalleled
personal merchandising machine. You will not see a lot of documentaries
co-produced by Knoxville and George Hamilton (who played Knievel in the John
Milius-scripted 1971 film), but here it is.
While carefully tracking Knievel’s cultural
significance, Junge never loses sight of the outrageousness of his stunts.
Frankly, he crashed out more often than his fans probably remember, which still
makes voyeuristically compelling viewing. Junge talks to just about all of
Knievel’s surviving family and associates, including his much neglected first
wife and his former promoter, Shelly Saltman. Despite being on the business end
of Knievel’s notorious baseball bat attack, the latter is remarkably gracious,
all things considered.
In many ways, Evel
Knievel exemplified American self-invention. Being Evel clearly establishes his many flaws, but the risks he ran
were still very real. Junge assembled some spectacularly dramatic and telling
footage that evokes an era that is no so long ago, but feels so very far away.
Briskly paced and stylishly constructed, it
is one of the more watchable documentaries of the year. Recommended beyond
the Knievel-extreme sports fanbase, Being
Evel opens this Friday (8/21) in select theaters, including the Roxie in
San Francisco, and also releases on iTunes.
Labels: Documentary, Evel Knievel, George Hamilton