Oscar-nominated filmmaker Daniel Junge’s highly entertaining documentary Being Evel tells the larger-than-life story of international iconic and daredevil Robert “Evel” Knievel whose hair-raising exploits in the 1960s and 70s captured the imaginations of many Americans during a tumultuous period in history when Vietnam and Watergate ruled the news.
Like many biographical documentaries, Junge’s film, which made its world premiere in January at Sundance, tells its story using extensive archival footage interspersed with talking head interviews. But it’s the style, footage and interviewees that Junge has assembled to tell Knievel’s story is what makes Being Evel such a ride. From its energetic comic-panel inspired credit sequence to its rock soundtrack to the nutty array of interviewees, including Johnny Knoxville (who produced the film), it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be your average talking head documentary. The glut of footage Junge and company have compiled for the picture, including some very rare stuff, is truly impressive. You cringe in horror when you watch Knievel crashing and smile in relief when he completes a jump successfully.
Junge starts his story with Knievel’s rough upbringing in a small-town in Montana before moving into the origins of his stunts as well as his nickname. Apparently, he chose “Evel” because he didn’t want to be considered “evil.” When small town hijinks like jumping over snake pits and jumping through rings of fire proved unsatisfactory, he moved on to jumping over cars at a local racetrack event covered on ABC’s then popular Wide World of Sports.
But real fame only came knocking when he jumped the fountains at the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Initially, no one had any interest in covering the jump but Knievel’s knack for self-promotion and hype caused enough of a stir for the networks to provide live coverage of the “event.” It was a disaster as Evel broke more than a few bones in his body from the jump. But the crash was a blessing in disguise as the cringe-worthy footage of him falling on his head, his body flying like a ragdoll, was shocking enough to land him on a series of nighttime talk shows. Couple his penchant for self-promotion and his devil-may care attitude and he became an overnight sensation. As he stated later, “Nobody wanted to see me die but they didn’t want to miss it either.”
As stardom beckoned, Knievel created a mythical persona, the lone hero, draped in red, white and blue, whose daredevil spirit was emblemized the American spirit. But the documentary posits that as the money poured in, so did Knievel’s belief in his own myth. And with it came the wild spending, the string of cars and yachts, the outlandish outfits and the multitude of affairs. But his downfall was equally spectacular. Conflicts with the Hell’s Angels marked the beginning of an era plagued by paranoia and internal strife. The flames only intensified when his brash and awful personality came to light.
One of the beauties of Junge’s film is that it isn’t afraid to shy away from the uglier aspects of Knievel’s life. In fact, it’s blunt in its depiction of him as a highly flawed, even despicable man who hurt a lot of people—emotionally and physically—around him. And this characterization is echoed by members of his family who paint him as an arrogant bully and bore who cheated on his wife who wasn’t above beating friends to a pulp with a baseball bat.
At the same time, Junge claims that these characteristics are also a big part of what made him such a fascinating, enduring American icon. Those disgusting traits may have destroyed the relationships with the ones he loved, and eventually, even his career, but it also gave him the guts to put his life and limb on the line for the entertainment of the masses. It’s what captured the imaginations of adults and children worldwide, and influenced everyone from Tony Hawk to Johnny Knoxville, the latter who dubs him an American hero. While I wouldn’t dare go as far as to label Knievel a hero—he was too much of a scumbag to warrant that title—I’ll say this: Despicable human or not, he sure was a ballsy character and a superb showman.
Director: Daniel Junge
Screenwriters: Daniel Junge, Davis Coombe
Cast: Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, George Hamilton, Tony Hawk
Producers: Mat Hoffman, Daniel Junge, Brendan Kiernan, Johnny Knoxville
Running time: 99 minutes
Companies: History Films, Dickhouse Productions, Gravitas Ventures