In the world of stunts and generally nutty behaviour, few names are more recognisable than that of Evel Knievel. He is synonymous with motorcycles jumping over cars and backpack rocket launchers, and when I was growing up every kid wanted to see the great man perform one of his stunts in person at least once. Wearing the white leather jumpsuit and cape too, of course.
The infamous daredevil has already been the subject of two fiction films (one in which he amazingly played himself, or “himself”), one self-produced documentary, a good number of television specials and retrospectives. So what makes tonight’s documentary BEING EVEL different? Well it brings a little more again when it comes to revealing the man behind the abject lunacy.
And what lunacy it was. Knievel made a career out of ridiculous stunts, like his botched attempt at jumping the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas that saw him spectacularly fail to nail the landing and instead wipe out on the asphalt. Atrociously. Few were truly successful, but he never did recover from the PR nightmare that was a failed jump across the Snake River Canyon when his “mighty rocket” didn’t even well… launch. He was a shocker if I’m to be totally honest, but where he did succeed – every time – was in the area of showmanship. He passed away in 2007 - not in any kind of stunt mind, but from a pulmonary ailment exacerbated by Hepatitis C, which the performer likely contracted from one of countless blood transfusions after failed stunts – but the legend lives on.
BEING EVEL’s point of difference from all of the tales that have gone before it is that it cleverly tells the story behind the 1970s American daredevil for today’s Extreme Sports generation. And this is done in a variety of clever ways. Many of the kids who watch it won’t be at all fazed by his antics after a lifetime of viewing the likes of the Crusty Demons and Jackass, but director Daniel Junge and co-writer Davis Coombe have cut his footage carefully for maximum impact. BEING EVEL also features notorious Jackass Johnny Knoxville in the role of both interview subject and co-producer, and he is clearly an unashamed fanboy when it comes to the infamous daredevil.
Despite this, the exercise in hero worship doesn’t shy away from its subject’s least admirable traits, of which there are quite a few. Instead it focuses on the previously untold and very much darker tale of the man behind the ridiculous cape; a one-time outlaw whose wildly dangerous career spanned 75 ramp-to-ramp motorbike jumps and saw him break every bone in his body. After hours, a combination of large amounts of alcohol, a weakness for anything in a dress, and an obsession with stunts bordering on death wishes saw a character emerge who definitely wasn’t in line with the all-American hero Knievel liked to portray himself as.
Having said that, although he’s depicted as behaving pretty badly (particularly with respect to women) what he does isn’t all that strange when you hold it up to the attitudes of the time and the general reaction from your average idiot when they find themselves earning craploads of cash. Many a rags-to-riches story is associated with less than admirable behavior, and this is definitely one of them.
It is interesting to acknowledge the legacy he left behind. Daniel Junge and co-writer Davis Coombe essentially credit him for launching the thriving, money spinning arena act that is extreme sports. Testimony from l fans like Knoxville and the legendary Tony Hawk make it clear Knievel’s lasting influence is as big as his personality.