Long before we had Tony Hawk or the gonzo "Jackass" dudes, we had Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel, who made the leap from popping wheelies on his Harley along Ventura Boulevard to traversing (ill-fatedly) Idaho's Snake River Canyon by rocket-powered Skycycle.
The rise-and-fall trajectory of Knievel's career is colorfully captured in Daniel Junge's "Being Evel," a savvy documentary that gives the granddaddy of extreme sports his due while gauging the national climate that welcomed his shrewdly timed arrival.
Riding onto the scene when Vietnam and Watergate had left America in a cynical funk, Knievel became an instant sensation with a star-spangled fashion sense that seemed informed by Elvis and Liberace. Ideal's Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle handily knocked G.I. Joe off toy department shelves.
Although his public persona ultimately would plunge precipitously from superhero to boorish bully, his risk-taking ways inspires the likes of BMX rider Mat Hoffman and "Jackass" frontman Johnny Knoxville, who serve as the film's producers and are profiled here along with Hawk, Geraldo Rivera, family members and George Hamilton, who portrayed Knievel in a 1971 film.
As astutely profiled by Junge, the self-aware showman had a good grasp on the psychology driving his celebrity before he succumbed to pulmonary disease at age 69.
"Nobody wants to see me die," Knievel, said, "but they don't want to miss it if I do."
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles.