A documentary exploring pro wrestler Baron von Raschke might be screening in San Francisco, but its roots are pure Minneapolis.
WORDS BY CHRIS STELLER
Two late 1980s high school music scenes from suburban Minneapolis are set to unify once again—but this time, on the West Coast.
The Claw, a new documentary about legendary Minnesota professional wrestler Baron von Raschke, will have a special screening Nov. 6 in San Francisco, featuring an acoustic performance by Craig Finn. (The Hold Steady frontman, playing songs from his burgeoning solo catalog, will be taking a night off from a solo tour with his band the Uptown Controllers.)
There will also be a panel featuring The Baron himself, Jim Raschke; his son, Karl Raschke, who is also a producer on the film; and director Phil Harder. The sneak peek for the 2022 film will take place in San Francisco’s Presidio district, at the gallery of the Grabhorn Institute, where the Arion Press is led by Rolph Blythe.
Finn and Blythe were friends in the music scene at Breck High School in Golden Valley in the 1980s, which had some crossover with its counterpart at Prior Lake High School, where Karl Raschke was a student.
Bringing the younger Raschke, Finn, and Blythe together was the brainchild of Blythe pal Teke O’Reilly. “It’s a perfect Venn diagram to support my cutting–edge theory that hipsterism was born in Minneapolis in the ’80s,” he says, “because these kids were all fed a steady diet of irony and absurdity, and they simply had to rock. It was in the water.”
If so, that same water fed the growth of the Minneapolis–based American Wrestling Association from the 1960s through the 1980s. As The Claw details, Jim Raschke joined the AWA in 1966 after a standout amateur wrestling career that saw him qualify for, but narrowly miss, the 1964 Olympics, due to injury. Under the tutelage of AWA co-founder Verne Gagne and mentor Mad Dog Vachon, Raschke developed his Baron persona as a “heel”—a villainous German fans loved to hate.
The film, based on a 2007 stage play in which the elder Raschke also acted, tag-teams various formats into an intoxicating mélange: old video from TV studio matches and traditional interviews with Raschke family members (including Karl’s sister, Heidi), and other wrestlers, sure, but also home movies shot in Super 8 by Bonnie “Mrs. Claw” Raschke that illustrate the foil to Raschke’s exploits in the ring: A warm, loving family life.
The Claw won the Special Jury Prize at the 2021 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival documentary feature competition, and wrote of it: “This was a film made with all the verve and bombast of the world it inhabits. A lively and entertaining portrait of professional wrestler Baron von Raschke, aka “The Baron,” The Claw was a welcome opportunity to lose oneself in a story about the passion and pain of pursuing a dream.”
“To make it really weird, which wrestling is—what’s real, what’s fake?—are these re-creations,” Harder says. “We cut between 16mm vintage wrestling matches and footage we shot that we make look like 16mm. It’s like no other wrestling movie that’s ever been made. I’m using the theatrics of wrestling in a filmmaking way. It’s rather surreal, it’s real high-energy, and the punk rock and all the music just makes it explode.”
That soundtrack is mostly local to Minneapolis, Harder says, from 1960s high school band The Novas’ 1964 song ‘The Crusher’ to Babes in Toyland, The Bad Man, Breaking Circus, Low, Man Sized Action, and The Suicide Commandos—the kinds of acts Finn, Rolph and Karl Raschke were going downtown to see as teens. Harder views punk stage antics as paralleling stunts in (and out) of the pro wrestling ring.
Finn feels the punk/old-school pro wrestling nexus, even if he traded one for the other. “I never became, like, the total wrestling guy. And, in fact, when I got just a little bit older, I got to thinking it was totally ridiculous,” he says. “I have friends that are still pretty into it, you know, go to it. That is not me. But up until about fifth grade, I really liked it. The AWA, the low-budgetness of it was kind of the charm. When they went like the WWF, the Wrestlemania and all that, I sort of checked out. I think I liked the DIY nature.”
Blythe, less of a wrestling fan, said his fine publishing nonprofit, Arion Press, has so far received four calls from former pro wrestlers wanting to chat: “‘Were you at the Cow Palace in 1982?’ No, I was not.” The Nov. 6 event pairing filmmakers and a musician is slightly afield from Arion’s more typical programs, which feature writers and artists.
But will this MSP-heavy event in the City by the Bay get the band back together? Actually, were Blythe, Finn, and Karl Raschke ever in a high school group together? Finn says no—at first. But then: “We may have tried to do a band. There was a lot of people playing music with each other. But I don’t think so…Yeah, there was just a group of people that were always trying to get something going.”
But Blythe and Karl Raschke remember it as a summer band. “It was short-lived, and short-lived for a reason,” said Blythe. “Mostly Descendants covers and Squirrel Bait songs.” He recalled Finn singing through dental work. “We sounded really tough,” he says.
Karl Raschke recalls it as “a goofy band that we called Baron von Rock Band, just playing random covers. I think we played in someone’s front yard.”
Finn’s established band throughout high school, No Pun Intended, was a friendly rival with another Breck band, Renegade Gus, which had a member from Prior Lake, where both groups appeared at a battle of the bands.
“I was already pretty into punk and hardcore in ninth grade, by high school, but then it’s like your friend that you bring into your band can play Hotel California really well, so you might as well play that song. It’s like, even though you’re kind of not into it, it will impress people, so …” Finn trails off, then hits on what sounds like a core trait that has carried him far. “There is this sense of just trying to put it together. I really wanted to be in a band, and that was some amount of persistence I found that I was pretty good at. I didn’t mind bugging people. I could do it if I cared about what I was bugging people about. I was kind of the engine in that sense.”
One true mystery remains: “Baron von Raschke was pretty much my favorite wrestler. I’ve been trying to think if I saw him wrestle in person,” Finn recalls. “I did go once to the Minneapolis Auditorium: Mad Dog Vachon, and Jesse Ventura and The Crusher. You know, a really good card. I would think The Baron would have been on tha, but I can’t remember who he wrestled if he did wrestle. So I don’t know.”
WHEN YOU GO
“The Claw” screens at the Grabhorn Institute Gallery in San Francisco on Nov. 6 at 5 PM. The evening includes a panel discussion with director Phil Harder, co-writer Karl Raschke, and Jim “The Baron” Raschke, as well as a special solo acoustic performance by Craig Finn. Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/421298734857
There will also be a public, one-night, free special screening of “The Claw” Nov. 16 at Sociable Cider Werks in Minneapolis at 7 PM, held in honor of the late Erik Helgeson, who worked as executive producer on The Claw and other films, hosted by his brother Paul Helgeson and the Helgeson family.