Robert Craig Knievel was brought up in Butte, Montana by his grandparents, having been effectively abandoned by his mother and father, and something like that can build resentment in a child. So it was that he went on to act up in increasingly foolhardy ways, and he gained a reputation as someone who would never back down from a dare, so much so that his friends were careful not to prompt him to such behaviour: it was as if he had something to prove to the world. Before he was able to do that, he became involved with crime, running his own protection racket, stealing cash in self-concocted scams, and eventually winding up in prison, where he got his nickname Evel Knievel. But he always had this love of Harley Davidson motorbikes...
Well, if you were around in the latter half of the twentieth century you'll know how this story goes, but maybe you didn't know as much as you thought you did if you thought Knievel was a true hero, as if anything this documentary showed he was, quite frankly, a complete asshole who bullied not just the people around him but the whole world into giving him the respect he believed he deserved. But even that was not the whole story, which was so good that he came across as the ideal subject for a film such as this, and by the end of it he would be satisfied that you came away with mixed feelings, but respect may well have been one of them when you noted how he realised at the end how badly he had behaved.
And also that for a man who had posed as a hero for a whole nation, never mind the little kids of the globe, he regretted his missteps and outright criminality that brought that always shaky reputation crashing down around his ears in the late nineteen-seventies. In the early seventies, however, he was one of the most famous men on the planet, having barged his way into the public's consciousness when with a mixture of keen self-publicity and a willingness to put his life on the line he rode his motorcycles into danger. As we are shown here - and as one of the most filmed men around during his heyday, there was an abundance of footage for director Daniel Junge to pick and choose from Knievel's career.
The clip from Caesar's Palace where he tried to jump the fountains is one of the most wince-inducing of all time, he just flops off the bike as if made from rubber as his bones break, but it made his name, and as the interviews with his confidantes and family show, even in hospital he was not averse to keeping up the publicity, telling the press he was in a coma when he was nothing of the kind. But a legend was being forged, one of Knievel's own making granted, though a number of other successful jumps were cementing his renown as a real spectacle bringer, pioneering extreme sport events as hundreds and thousands turned up for his shows, to watch a few seconds of him leaping over the cars mostly because they were hoping for an accident to tell their friends about. If he died, then so much the better.
And he very nearly did die, we're left in no doubt of that: his Harley Davidson was far too heavy for his stunts, but as an icon of America at a time when the country was suffering serious self-esteem problems he had to ramp up the patriotism as part of his shtick. However, that constant need to one-up himself was taking Knievel to some very grim places: we can laugh at George Hamilton (a producer here) and his anecdote on when he met Evel to discuss playing him in a movie, and he delivers it superbly, but the fact remained this was not a nice guy he or anyone else he crossed paths with were dealing with, sinking into a paranoid, aggressive, hard-drinking and womanising state that was no fun to be around. The incredible stories fly thick and fast, from the farce of the Sky Cycle jump across Snake Canyon (about as bad as it could get without someone being murdered, according to one of his staff) to his smashing up his PR man with a baseball bat for imagined affronts, and at the centre of it is a man who you imagine would love that he is still being talked about, in spite of what was being said. Like many solid documentaries, you couldn’t make it up.