If, like myself, you’re now big on streaming new releases at home rather than dealing with an increasingly idiotic and hostile cinema crowd*, then you know that quality selections have been few and far between all summer. Even good off-the-radar docs or random indies have been tough to find.
(*—Of course exceptions are made. “Mad Max: Fury Road” should really be seen on the big screen; it was one of the best action movies I’ve ever had AND I HAD ‘EM ALL OVER THE WORLD!!! And if that new Star Wars flick, the one that has been giving me lightsaber in my pants for awhile now, is any good, I’ll see the shit out of it in the theater.)
The drought ended last weekend when I rented a pair of docs that, on the surface, had nothing in common. “Call Me Lucky”, directed by the talented Bobcat Goldthwait, was ostensibly about Goldthwait catching up with his old friend, the comedian/satirist Barry Crimmins, and filling the world in on just what happened to the guy who shepherded arguably the nation’s greatest ever comedy scene at the legendary Ding Ho in Cambridge some 36 years ago. And as a child of the ’70s, I was morally obligated to watch “Being Evel”, a Johnny Knoxville-produced deep-dive into the life of America’s original Jackass, the complex and often difficult Robert “Evel” Knievel, who captivated the world with his Vietnam-era life-jeopardizing daredevilry.
It’s tough to come up with an apt, modern day comparison for Knievel. Picture a guy who did something crazy that basically nobody else did and then having him plastered everywhere. Nobody before ever looked at the Caesar’s Palace fountains and thought, “I’m going to (try to) jump those”. His toys couldn’t be kept on the shelves. In the ’70s, you couldn’t throw Pet Rock without hitting something draped in his patriotic get-up.
“Being Evel” traces Knievel’s early beginnings as a hell-raiser in Butte, Montana by talking with his childhood chums and local police who fruitlessly chased him on his motorbikes (it was the police who actually gave Knievel his nickname though he’d later change the spelling as to not be “too evil”).
It’s noted that he was essentially abandoned by his parents and raised by grandparents. It was this episode that fueled Knievel’s constant childhood attention-seeking and, eventually, his increasingly dangerous stunts that became events on par with heavyweight boxing matches. How big was his impact? In 37 years of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”, Knievel was featured in seven of the top 10 rated episodes, including the highest-rated ep ever when he jumped 14 Greyhound buses at the Kings Island amusement park in Ohio. Considering the run of athletes and events featured on the show, that’s a jaw-dropping statistic.
In the process of becoming a global superstar, he turned on a whole generation of kids like Knoxville onto thinking outside of the box and essentially became the Abner Doubleday of the X Games (not to mention the untold tens of millions of dollars he made hospitals over the years). But he also morphed into an egotistical, well, jackass.
Like many of his landings, Knievel was flawed. Even his lifelong buddies and an adoring Knoxville don’t sugarcoat how much of a dick he could be at times. Shitty husband. Traumatizing father. Bully. But there are some genuine laughs and great tales told. His batshit insane attempt to jump the one mile wide Snake River canyon in a modified rocket ship is told in great detail. The late Frank Gifford makes a significant contribution as one of the many diverse talking heads that contributed to this entertaining and informative movie about one of the country’s ballsiest showmen ever.
“Being Evel” is great, particularly if you want a nice slice of childhood nostalgia that will also remind you just how subjective memory becomes as you get older (“Wait, the Caesar’s jump was five years before I was born?!?”). To the young hoppers who likely never heard of him, it’s a great history lesson about a ballsy, true pioneer who became the American dream personified, demons and all. This warts-and-all flick is a mostly fun watch that gives a full portrait of the man who literally flew throughout the ’70s to become a legend and a true American icon. There’ll certainly never be another Evel Knievel.
My only real quibble with the doc? Not one mention of Super Dave Osborne. For rent on iTunes or Amazon. Grade: A-.
When I first saw the ads for “Call Me Lucky”, I knew the name Barry Crimmins rang a bell but I couldn’t place it. Even so, the raves it was getting from all corners had me interested. But just a minute or two into this sensational, powerhouse documentary, I remembered the guy.
He was a big, hairy, hilarious, frenetic bear of a man who had a hell of a stage presence and act when Boston’s legendary early ’80s comedy scene was in full swing. Unbeknownst to me until I watched this movie, it was Crimmins who was behind the genesis of said scene. After moving to Boston from upstate New York, he convinced the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge to host comedy shows and ended up spawning countless careers, including his own. Crimmins got increasingly angrier and edgier in his sets (and they were angry and edgy to start). One night in 1992, his set was essentially a monologue about the horrific trauma that happened to him as a child. And this seemingly cheery doc about a crusty, old comedian getting a second act suddenly does a 180, punches you in the gut, grabs you by the neck, and brings you on a gut-wrenching, emotional journey that is at times hilarious, more often heartbreaking, and heroic throughout.
This is the point where I’d get spoilerish if I continued (the above all happens relatively early in the flick). Suffice to say, I haven’t been this moved by a movie in years. At times, I was mesmerized by what I was watching. Literally dumbfounded by what I watched, still staring at the TV after the credits rolled. Often, it’s not an easy movie to watch but it’s an important movie to be seen.
Goldthwait does an incredible job of piecing together his longtime friend’s story and how what happened to him as a child set in motion the rest of his life; how he can take something awful and harness into something positive. He brings in many comics from that heyday (Steven Wright, Lenny Clarke), childhood friends, and later-in-life acquaintances in several locations to fill in the pieces of an incredible story of courage, perseverance, and survival. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years and hits you on every level like few do. Has to be the Best Doc Oscar fave right now. On iTunes and Amazon. Grade: A+.
Although these two movies are as far apart as you can get, they shared a very similar theme: how the effects of severe childhood trauma instilled a worldview that led each to his respective path in life. And each of these guys was pushed to edge—one literally and the other figuratively.
A few more buds for your popcorn bowl…
*Danny Collins. Al Pacino plays a Neil Diamond-ish singer on cruise control who still likes to get at it (keeps blow in his necklace charm). Then his agent gifts him a letter that he tracked down 40 years later—from John Lennon. This causes Pacino to take a long look at himself and make some drastic changes. I went in with low expectations but ended up digging the flick. Pacino is really good and it’s a treat to see one of our greatest living actors put on quality work. Bening, Plummer, Cannavale, and Garner also elevate the material with their work. Grade: B+.
*Red Army. Doc about the history of the USSR’s National Team, centered around Slava Fetisov and his finally getting to the NHL (spoiler alert!), is a must-watch for anybody that cares one iota about hockey history. These guys were among the best players in the history of the game but relative unknowns in North America for most of their careers. Some unreal footage and information to be taken in here. Grade: A-.
*While We’re Young. I’ll cop to not being a big fan of the critics’ darling, Noah Baumbach. I’ll watch one of his movies and wonder where all the slobbering comes from. And it happens again here. We’re supposed to believe not only that a couple in their mid-40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) will suddenly start hanging out with annoying Brooklyn hipsters in their 20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) but that they’ll actually start emulating them too. This did nothing for me or the people I watched it with. Grade: C-.
*Worth a watch on Netflix: The Wrecking Crew. Out of the Furnace. They Came Together. Champs. All This Mayhem. Bloodline. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.