BEING EVEL, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
What is a hero? The question lurks at the heart of this part-worshipful, part-warts-and-all documentary about one of the great self-promoters of America’s 20th century. Looking back from our era when celebrity itself can be the basis of celebrity, Evel Knievel stands out as a man who made his mark the hard way. Whether or not his death-defying motorcycle stunts add up to heroism is a question for philosophers to ponder, but they earned him fame and fortune as the public flocked to see if he would back up his braggadocio, or crash in a welter of broken bones, or worse. “Nobody wants to see me die,” Knievel muses, “but they don’t want to miss it if I do.”
After opening with a Johnny Carson appearance at the height of his subject’s fame, director Daniel Junge (Saving Face) picks up the saga of Bobby Knievel from his Montana origins, where he was a tough kid who spent some time in local jails. That’s where he got his nickname. A cop, surveying the mugs behind bars one night, cracked, “Well look who we got here — Awful Knofel and Evil Knievel.”
Junge has broken open a spectacular piñata of vintage Knievel footage, including triumphs and disasters, and buttressed it with talking heads that range from Jackass TV star Johnny Knoxville and actor George Hamilton (both of whom were producers on the film) to Knievel’s old homeboys and professional associates, and a couple of wives. Hamilton recalls a drunken Knievel holding a gun to his head in a scuzzy motel room and demanding that he read aloud the entire screenplay of the 1971 biopic in which Hamilton was to play Knievel.
Knievel rocketed to stardom by creating a mythic figure as the Vietnam War and Watergate were sapping the nation’s morale. But his swagger and ego, fueled by booze and drugs and the apparently unlimited availability of willing women, made him an unreliable friend. Many of his old pals remember him fondly, but some walked away as the trajectory of his career took him to giddier and sometimes nastier heights. The most serious fallingout was with his friend and promoter, Sheldon Saltman, who wrote a book about Knievel, allegedly with his subject’s approval. But when Knievel read it in print, he was incensed, and attacked the promoter with a baseball bat.
That was the beginning of the end, and the end came in free-fall. Knievel was sentenced to jail, he lost lucrative endorsements and licensing contracts, his marriage dissolved, and his life wound up in tatters.
The peak of this movie comes with Knievel’s notorious attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon on a steam-powered rocket device. The event degenerated into what one participant remembers as “the evil twin of Woodstock.”
After this, the movie out-jumps its momentum and crashes painfully, limping toward the finish amid a dying fall of panegyrics from contemporary extreme sports stars who remember Evel Knievel as the father of their culture. — Jonathan Richards
High times: Evel Knievel