For many kids growing up in the 1970s, Evel Knievel was a real-life superhero. He became famous for performing death-defying stunts that usually involved him jumping over something (or many things) with a motorcycle. He was the pioneer of what would later be known as extreme sports, inspiring a generation of kids to push the envelope with what was possible on skateboards, bicycles and so on. Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine helped create a very popular reality television show called Jackass, which was, in part, their tribute to Knievel. Years later, they helped produce a documentary on the man entitled, Being Evel (2015), directed by Daniel Junge. It chronicles Knievel’s rise from very humble beginnings to being rich and famous until fame consumed him – with help from a sizable ego, precipitating an alarming descent that left him financially destitute.
Right from the get-go, one gets the feeling that this was a passion project for Knoxville who is the first talking head on-screen as he lays out the film’s thesis: “I didn’t know the story of the man and it was pretty complex. I’m a grown-ass man and some of the stuff is hard to reconcile. It’s a crazy story.” The documentary proceeds to examine Knievel’s colorful life as told through vintage footage of his most memorable stunts both on and off the motorcycle and interviews with his family, friends, contemporaries, and admirers.
Knievel grew up in the rough and tough mining town of Butte, Montana without parents, raised by his grandmother. He learned early on how to fight and never backed down from a challenge. As a teen, he discovered motorcycles, raising hell with them at every opportunity. He committed all sorts of petty crimes over the years before eventually settling down and getting a job selling insurance, but when he realized that there was no room for advancement he quit and moved away with his wife Linda and their kids.
He sold motorcycles and then got the idea to start jumping things with them. He and his family settled in California and started a stunt riding show. It was at this time that he started developing showmanship techniques that would serve him well in the future.
Being Evel takes us back to the heady days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports with its iconic introduction that everyone who saw it back in the day could recite by heart: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” with the shot of the ski jumper wiping out that everyone remembers, memorably illustrating “the agony of defeat.” As ABC Sports producer Doug Wilson says, “We were in the business of sports theater. Sports was drama. Sports was a story.” It was one of the biggest shows on T.V. at that time and was a program that Knievel was perfect for. He was able to get on it by jumping over 15 cars.
The documentary takes us through some of Knievel’s greatest hits, like jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (scamming the casino’s owner in order to get permission to do it) and the infamous Snake River Canyon jump, which was a high-profile debacle, often with mixed results as the footage of the former shows him crashing and breaking several bones. Not only did he not make the latter jump (in a rocket-powered vehicle no less), but things got ugly among the tens of thousands of people that showed up to witness the event, some of whom belonged to various motorcycle gangs. It was “the evil twin of Woodstock,” as someone puts it. A high school band tried to play and were accosted, outhouses were knocked over and set on fire, women were raped, and fights broke out. Amazingly, no one was killed.
Knievel was breaking new ground and, as a result, was making it up as he went along or, as Knoxville points out, in regards to the stunts: “He dreamed up and sold before he even knew was possible and then on the day, he’s got the crowds there and he doesn’t know if he can make it. He’s just got to go for it.” The film explores how Knievel became an overnight popular culture sensation by putting it in a historical context. The United States was just coming out of the Vietnam War, which was a very dark period of American history. The American public had become very cynical and needed a hero. Knievel, with his white, star-spangled jumpsuit, stepped up and gave people someone to look up to. He was so popular that his stunts were among seven of the top ten rated shows in Wide World of Sports’ 37-year history.
Knievel quickly realized that he drew more crowds when he crashed then when he successfully landed a jump, telling a friend, “Nobody wants to see me die but they don’t want to miss it if I do.” His stunts literally embodied Wide World of Sports' credo of “The thrill of victory,” when he made it, and “the agony of defeat,” when he didn’t. This understandably not only put a great amount of stress on him but also his two sons and first wife Linda who recalls how nerve-wracking life was back then, not knowing if her husband would survive a given jump or not.
Junge deftly juxtaposes archival footage of Knievel talking himself up and espousing his worldview to anybody who’d listen, with his family and friends reflecting on what he was like in private and it wasn’t pretty. He cheated on his wife constantly and the painkillers he took to keep his numerous injuries in check affected his behavior, causing him to act irrationally and paranoid at times. Over time, Knievel crafted a persona and began to believe it, especially once he became rich and famous, adored by millions. As his daughter says at one point, “He forgot how to be Bob and when he became Evel it’s like the world took him away from us.”
The doc is chock-a-block with memorable anecdotes, like actor George Hamilton recounting a time when he was forced to read a screenplay for a movie version of Knievel’s life (written by John Milius no less!) with a gun pointed at his head by the man himself! For all of its hero worship, Being Evel tempers it by showing how the man’s monster ego and hubris proved to be his downfall, culminating in an incident where he attacked Sheldon Saltman, the promoter of the Snake River Canyon jump, with an aluminum baseball bat for writing a relatively tame tell-all book about the tour leading up to the event. Apparently, it was a little too truthful for Knievel.
The doc ends by touching upon Knievel’s legacy and how he lives on with guys like Tony Hawk, Travis Pastrana, Robbie Maddison, and Mat Hoffman who embody his daredevil spirit and theatricality, while the Jackass crew represent the flipside – his numerous crashes and wipeouts. Evel Knievel – daredevil superhero or charismatic con man? This is the dichotomy that Being Evel wrestles with and ultimately embraces in its fascinating portrait of one of the cultural icons of the ‘70s. Towards the end, one gets the feeling that this film has been something a cathartic experience for Knoxville as he forced himself to take a good long look at his hero and concludes, “I still think he’s a superhero. I know a more complete story, now. And some of the stuff is really heartbreaking, you know? But to me, what he did transcends that.”