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SXSW: Evel Knevel Lives On 14

Photo: Helo


AUSTIN – Saturday night, two guys in their mid-40s sitting a couple seats down spent the better part of the movie we were watching high fiving each other, trading thumbs ups and generally acting like a couple of joyful 1970s teenagers. It was actually adorable.

The credit for their bliss goes to Being Evel, a documentary about daredevil Robert “Evel” Knevel that is playing SXSW after debuting earlier this year at Sundance. The movie charts Knevel from his days evading the law in his hometown of Butte, Mont., through his rise to stardom and ultimate fall from grace. Sprinkled throughout are plenty of sweet motorcycle jumps.

Knevel’s darker days – in which he drank heavily, ran around on his wife, berated the constant media hordes and even served time for beating a promoter with a baseball bat – also get fair treatment.

“Our memory of him is so kinetic and action-oriented,” director Daniel Junge said after the screening. “He was a hero to me as a kid like he was to so many of our generation. But as I grew up, we learn that our heroes are sometimes less than heroic. … So this film, 35 years later, is a way of trying reconcile that childhood image with the person I came to know as an adult.”

The time that’s passed since Knevel’s prime has allowed for some perspective on his popularity. In the age of disillusionment over Vietnam and Nixon’s lies to the country, Knevel was all truth. Whether he landed the jump or not, what you saw was what you got.

Being Evel is also a reminder of what a true pioneer and showman Knevel was. With his white jumpsuit and cape, he was Liberace on wheels. And in hindsight, it does seem truly crazy just how much he made it up as he went along. His first big stunt, in which he jumped the fountains at Caeser’s Palace, was just a hunch he had that he could do it. And he almost did, until his tire clipped the ramp on the other side, sending him skidding like a rag doll 60 feet. That one caused a pair of broken ankles, a broken wrist and plenty of scratches and bruises.

But it’s Knevel’s fearlessness and willingness to give it a go that’s inspired everything from skateboarders to Jackass. Without him, there’d probably be no X Games. As someone says in the film – no one wanted to see him die, but they sure didn’t want to miss it if he did. ABC’s Wide World of Sports never missed a chance to show his latest stunt.

“As kids, we didn’t really care if he made it or not – it was about the attempt,” Junge said.

All of his big attempts are here – his failed rocket-propelled trip over the Snake River Canyon, the time he just missed clearing 13 double-decker buses in front of 80,000 in Wembly Stadium. They’re the stunts that inspired people like those guys in the audience to set up a couple of small ramps on their streets to see if they could jump their BMXs over their buddies.

Sometimes you made it, sometimes you didn’t. Either way, you had a story to tell in the lunchroom on Monday.