After seeing the documentary “Being Evel” at South by Southwest Wednesday, I feel comfortable saying we can probably stop making movies about the legendary Evel Knievel. That statement is a testament to the comprehensiveness of the film from Daniel Junge and the fact that daredevil is starting to feel like an anachronism.
There is no denying the fact that the Butte, Montana native born Robert Knievel invented the idea of danger as money-making spectacle, and his acts of daring led to the advent of action sports. Of course, those thrill-seeking extreme sports athletes have far surpassed anything Knievel ever accomplished in terms of performance.
Violet limit-pushing prankster Johnny Knoxville, skating legend Tony Hawk and BMX hoss Mat Hoffman all appear in the film (Knoxville and Hoffman are producers) and testify to Knievel’s influence and inspiration, but it’s funny even thinking about athletes like Hawk and Hoffman in the same category as Knievel.
Certainly Knievel was fearless and committed, like the X-Games maestros of today, but his accomplishments were more a testament to his will and cult of personality than athleticism. Which is to take nothing away from the impact his thrilling career had on his body, or how much physical strength it takes to commandeer a 1970s-era motorcycle over more than a dozen buses, but in the framework of modern extreme sports, Knievel’s accomplishments feel like an anachronism.
Despite that incongruity, the documentary does succeed at capturing Knievel’s odd and unique drive. Growing up in Montana, Knievel took on the persona of many men of his era in that hard-scrabble town: he was tough, unafraid and settled arguments with his fists. But it was the lack of approval from his father and lack of attention that seemed to drive Knievel to act out, a motivating factor that seemed to loom over his entire life. It’s amazing to think that a man who would wear a red, white and blue leather suit and talk about himself in the third person would suffer from insecurity, but maybe it makes perfect sense.
Knievel worked for a time as an insurance salesman, and brought to that endeavor the same competitive spirit and drive to be the best that he applied to his performance as a daredevil. He moved to California and basically invented the daredevil bike-jumping spectacle, though in the first year had trouble drawing big crowds. As his former business partner states in the movie, “How do you convince people to come to a sport they’ve never heard of?”
The answer was ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” whose Frank Gifford serves as a poignant and thoughtful witness to history throughout the film. Knievel appeared on the show in March of 1967, and his career shot off like the rocket-mobile he would eventually use to try and cross the Snake River Canyon in 1974. The former conman showed an impressive knack for self-promotion and self-aware sense of humor when he tricked Caesars Palace into letting him attempt to jump their famous fountains on New Year’s Eve 1967. He dreamed up and sold the event before he even really know what he intended to do or how he would do it.
That self-awareness slowly deteriorated over his career, as his meteoric rise led to millions and millions of dollars, alcohol problems and historic womanizing. His bombastic personality, as recounted in amazing archival footage and through anecdotes from friends and colleagues (all of whom appear with name only and no description of their relationship with Knievel) charmed with its peacock swagger, but the shine eventually rusted, and Knievel turned to a bitter, paranoid and angry man. As the movie (slowly) reaches its final act his sweet (ex)-wife of many decades and former business partners paint a bleak and dark picture.
The movie, stocked with rote talking-heads, takes a pretty straight-forward approach to the colorful character. It seems a man of such grandeur and self-promotion would be deserving of a more unique take, but all of the facts and color are there: from the fascinating footage of him trying to jump the Snake River Canyon amidst a scene reminiscent of Altamont to his triumphant arrival at Wembley Stadium in England. The man lived a ridiculously colorful life and created a phenomenon that reverberates through culture today. The movie puts a tidy bow on both the legend and the flawed human being.