Movie Review: Being Evel (2015)
About two-thirds of the way through “Being Evel,” Daniel Junge’s fun, straightforward documentary on Evel Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil who became part of the wider culture in the 1970s, we’re suddenly watching 8-milimeter footage of nondescript boys emulating his stunts on their bicycles: building ramps and jumping things on the sidewalks in front of their homes.
“Hey,” I thought. “Just like Chris.”
My older brother Chris was 10 in 1971 when we saw the B-movie “Evel Knievel” starring George Hamilton at the Boulevard Theater near our home. Inspired, he dragged an old toy refrigerator out on the front sidewalk, laid it flat, placed a sturdy board on top, and had at. Pedaling his banana-seat bicycle furiously, he jumped over stuffed animals, then real animals, then neighborhood kids. His daredevil career abruptly ended when parents got wind of the danger he was putting their kids in, but I’d always thought Chris had been an anomaly. Nope.
Part of the point of the doc, in fact, is how many young boys Evel Knievel influenced. As his son Robbie says with a smile, “We all have a little Evel in us.”
From Butte to Snake River
Robert Craig Knievel was a major asshole. Might as well say that up front. Maybe it’s more accurate to say he became a major asshole. Could’ve been the fame, could’ve been the painkillers/booze, maybe he landed on his head too much. The human body is a delicate machine and he didn’t exactly treat it delicately.
His life was a lot like the parabola of his jumps: rise, fall, crash.
He was born and raised in Butte, Montana by his grandparents. (It’s almost a cliché: another guy driven to success to make up for a lost father.) Butte was a tough town where you stood your ground, and that’s what he did. A relative remembers hitting Bobby, who promptly ran head-first into a door and told him point-blank: “You can’t hurt me.”
He was a rebel in the 1950s mode; he did petty crimes, skirted the law. Was he a safecracker? “He broke into my place,” says one resident. “He ran a racket,” says another.
The turning point almost seems like a joke. Evel Knievel, insurance salesman? But he was good at it—a natural salesman. And when he felt the boss screwed him over, he got a job selling motorcycles. That led to a stunt in Moses Lake, Wash., jumping his motorcycle over rattlesnakes. Then he was part of a team, “Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils.” Throughout, he kept selling himself.
The big break came in March 1967 when he jumped 15 cars at a motorcycle race in Gardenia, Calif., which just happened to be aired on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” Afterwards no one talked about the race; everyone talked about this crazy motorcycle jumper, this real-life Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” He got even more attention for the fountain jump at Caesar’s Palace later that year, but it only happened because 1) he thought it up, and 2) pushed and lied to make it happen. He kept phoning the owner of Caesar’s Palace and pretended to be different reporters asking about the event that hadn’t even been scheduled. He crashed—famously, in slow mo—but his career soared: Carson, Cavett, Sports Illustrated, Ideal Toys. All kids wanted to be Evel Knievel. Cue that 8-mm footage.
His most famous jump was a bust. At the end of the Hamilton movie, he talks about wanting to jump the Grand Canyon but the Dept. of the Interior said no. So he bought property next to the Snake River Canyon in Idaho and prepared to jump that. It was the excess of the period in microcosm. There was anarchy on the grounds (fights, rapes); the press saw him up close and didn’t like what they saw; and the jump itself was ridiculous. I was 9 when it happened and even I thought it absurd. Wait, he’s not on a motorcycle? Wait, he’s in a little rocket ship? Well, what’s the point of that? That’s not Evel Knievel. You see him being lowered into the rocket ship here and he looks like spam in a can. Worse, the parachute deployed early, and it was suggested that he did it himself; that he was scared. The press was brutal, even if it paid attention. For once, bad timing: That same day, Pres. Ford pardoned Nixon for crimes surrounding the Watergate cover-up. Evel Who?
He kept going—Wembley, Ohio, “Viva Knievel”—but he was increasingly paranoid and in pain, and his career crashed for good in 1977 when he assaulted his former publicist, Shelly Saltman, after the publication of Saltman’s book, “Evel Knievel on Tour.” There’s a good bit in the doc when various talking heads say, more or less, the book seemed fine to them; but Knievel took exception and went after Saltman with a baseball bat. At trial he was unapologetic, serving time even more so. The negative publicity hurt sales of the Evel Knievel toy and the Ideal company pulled out. His excessive lifestyle meant he’d saved little. He lost it all.
The sole, clean, clear leap
For some reason, Knievel’s influence on pop culture goes unmentioned here. There’s no Super Dave Osborne, Fonzie jumping 14 garbage cans (and a shark), nor Captain Lance Murdock inspiring Bart to jump Springfield Gorge on “The Simpsons.” Instead, Junge focuses on how influential Knievel was with, you know, the jackasses of the world. Johnny Knoxville is one of the doc’s main talking heads. We also hear from Knievel’s descendants, either literal (Robbie) or metaphoric (Tony Hawk, Robbie Maddison). We get footage of Maddison jumping an entire football field in 2007, which seems insane to me. It set the world record, but I first learned about it here.
That’s the thing: These guys are niche while Knievel seeped into the broader culture. His times allowed it. Back then, we had three channels and national meeting places, and Knievel broke through because he was crazy, original and a showman. He created and sold himself as a combo of Elvis, Gorgeous George, and Steve McQueen. The doc shows footage of him on “The Tonight Show” wearing a white fur coat and carrying a white cane on hands heavy with gaudy rings. What fun.
There’s also a rather forced attempt to redeem Knievel in the end. Junge wants rise, fall, crash and resurrection. There’s talk of needing heroes, of a man on a white horse, and somehow that’s applied to Knievel. C'mon. He was just a balls-out crazy showman who arrived at the right time. If Knievel means more than that—the way Muhammad Ali means more, the way Bobby Thomson’s homerun in “Underworld” means more—Junge doesn’t find it.
Maybe the beauty of Evel Knievel is simply the beauty Archibald MacLeish wrote poems about: the sole, clean, clear leap that has disappeared.