I remember many years ago, when MTV’s Jackass was receiving a battering in the press and from various concerned morality groups, thinking to myself how times had changed – once it was a great American past-time, drinking beer with the good-old-boys and watching a man launch himself over buses and through blazing hoops. Jackass seemed to me unfairly treated. It was merely a modern punk-rock version of the same thing. A touch more sleazy, I suppose, and a lot more crass. But still ostensibly the same thing, gaining a modicum of respect only really when the extreme sports world of the X-Games and Nitro Circus took off. Perhaps then, I thought, the daredevils of old appealed more to a family sensibility than Jackass and their ilk, a good wholesome American heroism that is lacking in today’s more comedy and thrill based stunt shows. There is a definite through-line however, and where Jackass and the Nitro Circus are probably the height of modern daredevil programming, they draw their inspiration from possibly the first, and certainly in the eyes of many, the greatest of them all: Evel Knievel.

Being Evel tells us the story of Robert Craig Knievel’s astonishing life of stunts, mayhem and controversy through interviews with his family, fellow daredevils and those who both loved and hated him. There is loads of great footage here, of both Knievel’s greatest triumphs and his lowest moments, during and after his lengthy career in the public eye.

It was inevitable that when a full-length documentary about Knievel eventually came out, there would be a Jackass connection, and indeed there is. Being Evel is produced by Jeff Tremaine and Johnny Knoxville, creator and star respectively of Jackass, and Matt Hoffman, probably the greatest BMX rider of all time, and in his own spectacular way, about as close as we have to a modern Evel Knievel. Knoxville appears in many of the interview segments too, and it’s obvious from what he says and the footage we see of him that he feels that, without a doubt, there would be no extreme sports without Knievel.

Those who have seen any kind of biographical documentary will know exactly what to expect here, the combination of chronological historical footage intercut with interviews from talking heads both at the time and now. We are given extensive archive footage of all of Knievel’s greatest jumps and greatest crashes, beautiful slow-motion footage of bikes and bodies soaring through the air over cars and buses, landing smoothly and riding out or thudding into the landing ramp and giving way in a shower of bike parts and limbs. Knievel was, to many, just as famous for the many times he crashed as he was for the times his bike overcame the unstoppable pull of gravity to land safely. Over the course of his career, he states, he broke every bone in his body and this just pushed him even further to try and beat the jumps that beat him so often.

Before we get into the really personal element of the film, which element Knievel does not emerge from with his reputation intact, there is a lengthy segment devoted to what would have been the greatest jump in history – the failure of which resulted in a debacle not far removed from the Stones’ troubles at Altamont. Knievel had always planned his jumps, it seemed, looking from the outside, as if each one would potentially be his last. This was no more apparent than his outlandish plan to jump, with the aid of a compressed air rocket, the Grand Canyon. Obviously a ridiculous idea, and one that was shut down pretty quickly by the authorities. Not to be deterred however, Knievel, as was his want, went about things his own way and moved the jump to Snake River Canyon, where he would be free to perform as he saw fit. This jump was heavily advertised by Knievel’s whirring promotional team and when the day of the jump came, word had spread so much that the area around the canyon was a carnival of family barbeques, television cameras, marching bands and, later in the day and probably to be expected at the time, an influx of drugged up free-love ne’er-do-wells and violent Hell’s Angels. Amidst all of this, Knievel launched himself off the end of the ramp. Whether he made it to the other side or not didn’t really seem to matter to too many people that were there.

Later in the film, Knievel’s personal conflicts and predilections take precedence. We are shown numerous examples of his abrasive personality, whether it be in dealing with the press or his would-be biographers or pretty much anybody else close to him – his selfish, outrageous and sometimes violent impulses overtook his life – a life he was determined to live duplicitously, entirely on his own terms yet relying heavily on others for approval and confirmation. All of this was probably not aided by his drug use and life of constant injury-caused pain. Whereas once he was lauded across the globe for his jumps and his superhero public persona, his personal problems, compounded by his illness, resulted in financial difficulties and a plethora of lawsuits and character failings.

It would take many years for Knievel to return from the wilderness of public indifference and this film brings his incredible story full circle – from humble beginnings in the regional motorsport circuits, to fame-seeking public jumps to world-record breaking hero worship, through emotional turmoil to eventual acceptance during his declining health. Being Evel has everything a fan of documentaries, bikes and spectacle could want, with a very human story at its heart and some incredible stunts on its sleeve. Like all great pioneers, Knievel can now take his place as the grand patriarch of a life-style that has not only now become accepted, but has become a big business producing an entire new generation of stunt heroes.

Being Evel screened at the 59th BFI London Film festival on the 9th, 12th and 18th October as part of the Thrill strand.

Director: Daniel Junge
Stars: Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, Matt Hoffman
Runtime: 102min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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