Being Evel

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A candid portrait of American icon Robert "Evel" Knievel and his legacy.
"This is very much a warts and all portrait, but in the process it brings us much closer to its subject, feeds a depth of appreciation many fans of those stunt shows will not have felt before."

He was a legend in his own lifetime, the inventor of the stunt riding show, a spectacular showman and the first man ever to make a literal attempt to jump the shark (several sharks, in fact). He dressed like Elvis, started fights with strangers and broke or fractured 433 bones over the course of his lifetime, but he's remembered as a true American hero. That's what comes of never backing down from a dare.

For documentarian Daniel Junge - as for many people who were kids in the Seventies - Evel was something of an idol. The process of uncovering this larger story has been painful for him, he confesses at the outset. It's hard to accept that a legend is also a man; hard to accept that a man one admires for his courage and style can also be a dick. This is very much a warts and all portrait, but in the process it brings us much closer to its subject, feeds a depth of appreciation many fans of those stunt shows will not have felt before.

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There's a lot of material here that has barely been touched on in previous portraits, in part because Evel was involved in so many outrageous incidents over such a long time that the real difficulty lies in covering a representative sample. The film isn't perfectly paced and sags a little in the middle, but it's still full of stories, from Evel's small town origins as an archetypal juvenile delinquent though his sleazy con man and salesman days (there may not have been a great deal of difference between the two), to the moment he decided to jump over the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and beyond. It also tells the stories of the people around him, providing very personal insights, though one gets the impression that time has mellowed them. A police officer recalls fondly, as if talking about one of the Fast & Furious films, that it was never possible to catch him if he got behind the wheel of a car.

Perhaps most importantly for the casual fan, there's some great archive footage of those famous stunts, including the chance to see them from multiple angles, which wasn't always possible at the time they were first broadcast. Even today they make stunning viewing, and there's a rawness about them which improved technology has removed from latter day attempts - to put it simply, doing stunt work is a lot safer now. Early on, Evel describes the appeal of his work: people don't want to see him die but they don't want to is it if he does. Johnny Knoxville says the difference for him is that most of his stunts are supposed to fail; Evel was involved in a succession of horrible accidents but knew how to exploit them to the full.

As fascinating for his sheer chutzpah as for anything he did on a bike, and more interesting for his human flaws, Evel is an ideal documentary subject. What makes Junge's documentary so strong, however, is the way it uses his story to tell a broader one about America, a piece of history that is more about mood and self-belief than oft-recounted historical incident. Amid all the bravado and the ugly mistakes, there's a redemptive quality about it. Evel embodies the dream that anything is possible. It may be insane, but it has its charms.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2015
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Being Evel packshot
An candid portrait of American icon Robert "Evel" Knievel and his legacy.

Director: Daniel Junge

Writer: Davis Coombe, Daniel Junge

Starring: George Hamilton, Johnny Knoxville

Year: 2015

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: US


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