The year is 1977 and the biggest sports star in the country is a rambunctious, arrogant, and perhaps insane daredevil from Butte, Montana. Yes, I mean Robbie "Evel" Knievel, the epitome of an all-American hero. After his early years as a criminal hoodlum, Knievel decided to "get his act together". That meant getting on a big motorcycle and jumping over anything he could find. By 1974 he was so well loved that even a failed attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a "skycycle" couldn't bring him down, nor could a nearly fatal accident jumping 13 double-decker buses at Wembley (You Tube, Quicktime). In fact, it was his spectacular crashes more than his successful jumps that truly made Knievel a star. Morbid audiences hung on every second, wondering just how bad it was going to be. Besides packing stadiums around the world, his appearances on The Wide World of Sports (mp3) were among the highest rated in the show's long history, and he still holds the Guiness Record for most broken bones.
In 1972, George Hamilton co-produced and starred in a low-budget biographical film on Knievel. The great part is that Mr. Suntan nails the role, with just the right amount of bragging bravado. The bad part is, well, as one internet reviewer said, "This movie is what would happen if you let a 13 year old boy outline the plot of Evel's life...and then you let William Shatner write it." Implausibilities abound, from a daring City Hall dynamite robbery, to a young Knievel casually watching an automobile fall into an abandoned mine-shaft (Quicktime), to bumbling cops giving Evel that fateful name. The film is most notable for not trying to downplay Knievel's checkered past, and instead amping it up, turning him into some sort of Robin Hood folk hero.
But by the time the big studios came looking for their own Evel movie five years later, that would change. Instead of the darker early years, a new story was concocted that showed Evel as his public saw him (or at least how Evel perceived that his public saw him): a Superhuman Daredevil, Suave Romeo, Protector of Orphans, and Samaritan Who Believes In Family And Hates Drugs.Tapping exploitation legend Gordon Douglas (Them!, In Like Flint) to direct, Viva Knievel! is still filled with implausibilities, not the least of which is trying to believe that anyone thought Knievel was capable of "acting".
More EVEL after the jump.
After a spectacular and terrible crash (represented by footage from the Wembley show), Evel is about to toss in the towel. A young boy, the lost son of his drunken mechanic (Gene Kelly!), pleads for him not to give up. Evel decides to do one last big show for a promoter in Mexico. Along the way he falls in love with a nosey reporter (Lauren Hutton!!), is double-crossed by his best friend (Marjoe Gortner!!!), and doesn't realize that the promoter is actually a nasty drug lord (Leslie Nielsen!!!!) who is plotting to kill Evel and smuggle drugs in his coffin. Evel of course discovers the plan, busts a drugged Kelly out of a shifty rehab clinic (run by newcomer Dabney Coleman), and rushes off to save the day. It is laughably action-packed from start to finish. VIVA!
The first few minutes of the film feature Evel sneaking into an orphanage in the middle of the night to distribute presents (dolls of himself, of course). This beginning is so surreal and beautiful that I was immediately inspired to do an audio version. Out of context, the dialogue is even more ridiculously transcendent, and my original thought was to just pull out all the times anyone in the film says "Evel" and mix them all together.* But once I got in the studio, there was just too much rich material that I couldn't let go of. So instead, I made a nine minute audio version of the whole film. Think of it as the 7" kiddie story record of Viva Knievel! that should have been made, especially since it was us kids that really supported Evel's career through our constant purchases from his lucrative toy line (YouTube Quicktime).
Viva Knievel, condensed version mp3, includes the incredibly catchy theme song.
Released in June of 1977, the film was a dismal flop. A few months later Evel, his arms in casts from another devastating accident, would nearly beat biographer Sheldon Saltman to death with a baseball bat for implying that he was a womanizer and used drugs. In other words, that squeaky clean Evel of the film had already turned back to the dark side.
* As I was working on this project, another FMU staffer told me about a similar adaptation of the opening of Viva Knievel! that was done by experimental British band Position Normal. The track "Evil" from the vinyl-only Goodly Time nicely mirrors my idea (mp3). I'd never heard it before, but it is nice to know that I am not the only one more than a little creeped out by a kid dropping his crutches and exclaiming, "You're the reason I'm walking,