I’m old enough to have one of those wind-up Evel Knievel motorcycle toys, but too young remember him as a performer. I didn’t even know what the guy actually looked like. Just the outfit. An Elvis in Vegas style white jumpsuit with the stars and stripes emblazoned across it. That’s probably for the best because Being Evel shows the man wearing that suit was kind of a dick. While you have to admire Knievel’s reckless endangerment of his own being to liven up the drab sports coverage offered by 70s sports channels there’s no getting away from the fact he was a narcissistic, money-orientated, womanising, violent bully. Born Robert Craig Knievel, he got the nickname ‘Evel’ because of his frequent run-ins with the law as a youngster, and he seems to have carried his mercenary instincts with him throughout his career.
Also, and this is unforgivable, he once held a gun to George Hamilton’s head. Who does that? Seriously? Who threatens the star of Zorro: The Gay Blade with a loaded firearm? Hamilton had hired John Milius to write a screenplay based on Knievel’s life, but the stunt rider took exception to Hamilton asking him to read it. Pity he didn’t try that manoeuvre on Milius who would probably pulled a much bigger gun and shot him in the face. That film, Evil Knievel (1971, Marvin J. Chomsky), was actually made and there are clips here which suggest it’s probably terrible. Knievel hated it, but as Hamilton wryly notes he appropriated lines from the film into his own act hyping up his stunts with macho Milius-style language.
Being Evel is a fairly perfunctory documentary mixing talking head interviews with archive footage. It’s a great snap-shot into the all-encompassing fame the 70s’ seems to have offered with the limited amount of media available to a mass audience. Though the film tries hard it can never convince that Knievel was anything more than a loud-mouthed obnoxious American show-off in the Donald Trump mould. It also raises difficult questions but never follows through on them; did Knievel have a death wish? Did people go to his events because they wanted to see him crash? Undeniably brave, although in a way that is almost entirely pointless, Evil Knievel was certainly one of a kind.