Thursday, August 10, 2017
Even if you know nothing about Evel Knievel, you probably know his name. In this 2015 documentary, we learn about the real fellow, a motorcycle daredevil who became the most unlikely of 1970s icons, helped in no small way by a windup action figure that was beloved by kids, a cheapo movie bio starring George Hamilton, endless coverage on ABC's Wide World of Sports, and Viva Knievel, where Knievel starred as himself. The real Evel was a somewhat psychotic stunt-rider and attention addict from Montana who once attempted to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace. He nearly died, but the shocking footage of him bumping around like a rag doll became his calling card. He'd present it on late night talk shows and people would gasp. Each gasp fed his ego, until he became unbearable.
There are familiar faces in the documentary. We hear from various riders and stunt lovers like Tony Hawk and Johnny Knoxville (who served as a producer) and they can't hide their admiration for Evel. They are kids again, just thinking of him. Evel's own sons, Robbie and Kelly, speak of their father from a distance, as if describing a legend, a suicidal Paul Bunyon for the Watergate years.
It is a tribute, yes. Being Evel, is an undoubted gift for the cult of followers who adored this mental case who destroyed his body for the sake of entertainment. What I hadn't realized, until seeing this movie, was that Evel spent much of his adult life walking around in a state of fear. His eyes look wary, and his body language before every jump is of a man walking gamely to the gallows. He presented himself as a fearless badass, and insinuated that he simply had bigger balls than the rest of us, but he looks shaky. "If you were about to do what I'm about to do," he tells one reporter before a big jump, "you'd be nervous, too."
Robert "Evel" Knievel comes across as a duel personality. At first, he was just a thrill seeker, a good ol' boy who kept seeking bigger and bigger challenges. Gradually, he started believing his own hype. When Hamilton played him in Evel Knievel, a schlocky '70s drive-in flick, Knievel underwent a change. In fact, Knievel started acting more like a movie character, and less like himself. He may have been the first guy who lived and behaved like a rock star without being a rock star. By the time of his last few jumps, he was paranoid, drugged up, and violent, but still a showman, still shoving the Evel image at us. "He kept trying to sell and resell something he'd already sold," Hamilton says.
The filmmakers don't hide Knievel's awful side. He was a womanizer - groupies threw themselves at him - and he was a bully. When he didn't like a book that was written about him, he attacked the author with a baseball bat. He did some time in prison for that one, but it only added to his myth. There's an incredible piece of footage that shows a couple of Hell's Angels attacking him after a jump, and people running out of the audience to beat back the angels. A badly dazed angel is dragged off by security, shaken by the the fury of Knievel's rabid followers. It's no wonder Knievel felt indestructible.
But he wasn't. At times it seemed his famous red, white and blue jumpsuit was all that held his broken body together. He walked stiffly from leg injuries, underwent numerous operations, and shattered his pelvis more than once. After one particularly horrific stunt in London, which ended with the motorcycle on top of him, he demanded to be helped to a standing position so he could address the audience and announce his retirement. He jumped again a year later.
Perhaps the secret to Knievel's success was best summed up by the man himself. "People don't want to see me die," he once said. "But they don't want to miss it if I do." Granted, there are riders now who routinely do what he did - his own son Robbie broke most of the old records, and even beat the fountain at Caesar's Palace - and thanks to much lighter bikes and better technology, they can do what Evel did without crashing all the time. But who cares if some faceless 18 year-old can soar higher in 2017? Evel was the Charles Lindbergh of his era - he did it first, and not only flirted with self-annihilation, but seemed wedded to it.
Being Evel isn't a perfect documentary; there's a monotony in the talking heads who keep harping on how Knievel let fame get to him. It's also a bloody shame that Leigh Montville, author of Evel (an exquisite bio) wasn't involved. But there's a great sense of doom about it, especially leading up to Knievel's attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974. Snake River was his Altamont, with hippies and bikers going nuts on the site, a flimsy rocket failing in midair, and Knievel, defeated again, waving to us from the bottom of the canyon.
As I watched, it occurred to me that the real key to Knievel was that each terrible crash was preceded by a flight into the heavens. In a small, 1970s way, Knievel was a modern Icarus, edging too close to the sun. He struck such an important cord within us that we invented a toy of him, so we could do it, too.