A dozen years have gone in the books since Larry Hass, in his debut competing as an Elvis tribute artist, forever put an asterisk next to 2004 in the annals of La Crosse’s annual Elvis Explosion.
Filmmaker John Paget was at the La Crosse Center for the Elvis Explosion with a film crew that September evening, and his crew captured the moment when Larry Hass shockingly fell to the stage after performing his first song. They also filmed the agonizing minutes after his fall while paramedics worked on him for at least half an hour before a couple thousand people in a hushed hall.
Paget might have captured Hass’ dying moments, but the greater feat he accomplished was capturing his life in the documentary “Larry Has Left the Building.” The movie screened for a weekend in La Crosse back in September 2012, and “Larry Has Left the Building” recently became available on DVD for the first time. It has never shown on Netflix or any other streaming services, so the DVD release represents the first time since that initial screening that people have been able to see it.
Even if you didn’t know going in that Paget directed and produced an award-winning 2002 documentary about Elvis tribute artists called “Almost Elvis,” it’s plain before getting too far into “Larry Has Left the Building” that Paget reveres Presley and the ETAs who work so hard to preserve the King’s memory. Despite the rather flip title of the film, it’s also plain from watching “Larry” that Paget set out to bring Hass to life, not just capitalize on and sensationalize his singular demise.
Paget’s footage of Hass might never have seen the light of day if he’d not seen “Grizzly Man,” the award-winning 2005 documentary by legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog about the life and gruesome death of “bear enthusiast” Timothy Treadwell. Paget is no Herzog, but “Larry” lovingly tells the story of Hass, a big teddy bear of a man who grew up on a farm in rural Chaseburg and continued doing farm work even during the many years he was lead vocalist for Rode Hard and Put Up Wet, one of the area’s hardest working and most popular bar bands.
“Larry” does a great job of scene-setting, with beautiful footage of downtown La Crosse, the river, the bluffs, the gorgeous chapel where the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration pray and the area where Hass grew up. La Crosse looks so good in “Larry,” it probably should have gotten star billing.
Hass’ widow, Lisa, pulls most of the storytelling load and she does it well, talking about meeting Hass when he was playing with the band at a bar in Stoddard, his party-hearty lifestyle, his love of music and the heart problems that put his musical pursuits on the backburner for a while. Lisa talks about how they bonded over Elvis early in their relationship, and how after his heart issues worsened in February 2003 he started singing again, first at karaoke nights and then portraying Elvis at benefits, parties and special events.
In “Larry,” Elvis Explosion founder Ronny Craig talks about how he urged Hass to sign up for the Explosion. On multiple occasions, Craig recalls in the film, Hass would ask him, half joking, “What if I die on stage?” In one particularly moving scene from the 2004 Elvis Explosion in which more than 20 ETAs have gathered on stage to sing a spine-tingling rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” the look on Craig’s face tells you he is devastated.
“Larry” has some clips of Hass singing with Rode Hard that hint at how good a singer he was, but his performance at the Elvis Explosion of “Just Pretend” really hammers it home. “Just Pretend” is one of Presley’s huge power ballads, and Hass just nails it. On top of giving what is characterized as the performance of his lifetime, the lyrics have an eerie edge to them considering what was about to happen.
Part of the fun of watching “Larry” for me was seeing people I know. Hass’ former bandmate Jon Aylsworth gets a lot of screen time, John Satory makes an appearance, Dan Berger sings one of his songs, and it was cool to see the late John Steers again. When he was medical examiner, he let me go on some calls with him that resulted in one of the more memorable stories I’ve ever done.
It was a little eerie seeing Paul Petras in the movie at his business, May’s Photo, which had donated a very nice telescope to the Elvis Explosion as a prize for the winner of the Fan Appreciation Award, like a people’s choice prize, which ended up going to Hass. Petras and his son, A.J., were murdered in a robbery gone wrong at the store on Sept. 15, 2012, right around the time “Larry Has Left the Building” was screened in La Crosse.
(The movie’s Facebook page has a lot of stills from “Larry” showing local people and scenery.)
“Larry” tells a good story and it should be especially fun for local folks to watch, but it did feel like it was padded. There are a lot of well-done scenes of other Elvis tribute artists performing and a section showing throngs gathered outside Graceland on the anniversary of Presley’s death, but I would rather have seen more local people telling stories about Hass.
The film also has quite a bit of footage from Glory Days, a Packers-themed bar in downtown La Crosse where some ETAs apparently liked to go, but any connection to Hass’ story seemed purely tangential at best. It was almost like a commercial for the bar. One of the scenes with Hass’ best friend came across like an ad for the friend’s auto body shop.
You wouldn’t see this kind of fluff in a Herzog film, but even with these shortcomings “Larry Has Left the Building” is worth a watch. “Larry” made me wish I’d known Hass and reminded me how great we have it here in La Crosse. As tragic as the ending was for Hass, the message of the movie is that Hass went out in style doing something he loved to do and doing it as well as it can be done, a grand blaze-of-glory exit a lot of Presley fans would have preferred over the sad way he went.
Rock on …