“I won’t ask for your respect, I demand it.”
I’d say almost every documentary is made for one of two reasons. People are compelled to put in the time and effort to make a documentary because they want to celebrate something they love, or expose something they find terrible. I have no preference, and each has their merits. But sometimes, film makers making a documentary about something they love can go beyond celebration and become sycophancy. And it’s those moments that hold Being Evel back.
A scammer and small time crook from Butte Montana, Robbie Knievel spent his young adult years scamming local businesses and committing petty robberies. But when he started a family, he knew it was time straighten up. After a stint as a highly successful insurance salesman, he eventually started selling Honda motorcycles. When sales were slow, he decided to put on a small stunt show and jump one of the bikes to show how great they were. A few years of rinky dink stunt shows finally turned into national stardom when he gained the notice of TV show, Wide World of Sports.
What follows is a pretty standard rags, to riches, to excess story. Or at least, that’s what I thought. Because after pursuing that story arc for a little while, the long middle section becomes the in depth story of Knievel’s most notorious stunt, the jump of Snake River Canyon. It also tackles the fallout from that event and his struggles with coming to terms with the fact that his peak of fame and fortune may have been behind him.
Talking head interviews in Being Evel include 21st century daredevil Johnny Knoxville and BMX superstar Matt Hoffman, who both also get Executive Producer credits. We also get insight from actor George Hamilton who played Knievel back in the day. Plus a whole lot of friends, family and colleagues who were right beside the man during most of his most famous and formative moments. And they’re all totally infatuated with the man.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fans and obsessives sharing their love of something has lead to plenty of amazing documentaries in the past. The problem with Being Evel is, it often comes off as everyone trying a bit too hard to convince not only the audience, but also themselves, that they loved him as much as they say they did. When victims of his crimes laugh off thefts, and his son and wife wave off his infidelities, it just seemed like too much. Almost like the film makers felt like they couldn’t expose a Knievel flaw, without straight away negating it with some fluff.
Also, a lot of their admiration comes off as overly planned, scripted and rehearsed. None of these people are speaking off the top of their head or organically from the heart. Everyone always has the perfectly pithy statement, or good ol’ boy joke to sum up every turning point and defining moment of Knievel’s story.
But in the end, the good of Being Evel outweighs the bad. For all of its overcooked admiration and desperate attempts to try that little bit too hard, it’s still telling a classic story that’s impossible to not be entertained by. Who wouldn’t want to watch what happens when a redneck gets millions of dollars for being too dumb to know what he was doing is supremely stupid?