Like a handful of Quaaludes ingested at a funeral, “Last Days Here” starts out as a dismal downer. But wait! Is that a faint ray of sunshine on the horizon? Can a hurried mouthful of Prozac reverse a despondent descent into darkness? Can Bobby Liebling, an irresponsible junkie of a man who depletes his enabling parents’ hard-earned funds to the tune of a million clams, possibly win over our sympathies?
Yes… but only by the skin of his few remaining teeth.
“Last Days Here” poses a formidable challenge. Documentarians Don Argott and Demian Fenton (“The Art of the Steal”) DARE us… DOUBLE DARE us… to embrace their deeply flawed “protagonist,” an on-again, off-again heavy metal screamer whose impulsive, uninhibited behavior is both his talent and his own worst enemy. It’s a tall order. What’s to like about Liebling?
For four erratic decades, this wild-eyed stage performer fronted Pentagram (the wicked moniker suggested, strangely enough, by his straight-laced mother). Formed in 1971, Pentagram’s distortion-driven riffs gave Black Sabbath, their Brit counterparts, some legitimate competition.
But even as Liebling carried the torch for his influential doom-rock machine, he simultaneously cursed them to eternal obscurity. Erratic behavior. Fights with music-biz gatekeepers and the consequent loss of record deals (including potential partnerships with Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Blue Oyster Cult manager Murray Krugman). A penchant for chaos and chemical ingestion that made decaying Keith Richards resemble John Boy Walton.
In a ballsy move, the filmmakers burst through the starting gates by immediately putting Liebling’s worst foot forward. “Sugar-coating” is a concept devoid from their in-your-face aesthetic. They serve up Liebling raw, curled up on a basement couch like a fetal baby on life support. Plagued by the persistent delusion that parasites are creeping beneath his skin, Liebling has scratched his arms into gauze-covered skin-scabs. You’re excused from having to look away… or upchuck your lunch.
If you can stick it out, however, you might be in for some uplift and redemption to counter those sickening early images. Maybe.
Through the devoted gestures of long-suffering manager Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, Liebling is coaxed out of the basement – and, perhaps, back into the spotlight. Our optimism continues to grow after this slowly-rejuvenating rock fossil falls in love. Suddenly, there’s a glimmer of hope in his eye. His strut goes from stagger to swagger. He shows some responsibility. Inexplicably, we ponder the idea that Liebling just might be putting back on those Paisley shirts and bell-bottom stage pants gathering dust for decades.
“Last Days Here” is more than a simple character study. It’s also a rock and roll history lesson. Amazingly, Pentagram’s legacy has remained potent since their inception in 1971, thanks to legions of devoted doom-rock fans. “Last Days Here” will have many music-loving viewers scratching their heads, and asking themselves, “Why haven’t I heard of these guys?”
For insiders like legendary producer Brian Slagel, whose Metal Blade Records released Pentagram’s most recent album (“Last Rites”), the band’s talent was never in question. “I have always been a fan of Pentagram going all the way back,” says Slagel in a matter-of-fact manner. “I always had liked the stuff they had done.” This coming from the first man to capture Metallica on vinyl. Other luminaries, including Liam Gallagher of Oasis and respected Chicago chord-crunchers Trouble, also cite Pentagram as unsung heavy metal heroes.
“Last Days Here” initiates us into a warts ‘n all world of almost-famous cult bands, their troubled, tormented talents, and the allegiance-pledging fans who ensure their survival. Think “Almost Famous” without the sap. Think “Anvil” with heroin.
From their home stomping grounds in Philadelphia, Argott and Fenton engaged me in the following conversation about how they so successfully conveyed this seductive world onto film. Via telephone transmission from Pennsylvania to Tacoma, this flourishing filmmaking team explains that despite the miles worn by both their subject and his band, “Last Days Here” prefers to embrace the future and not wallow in the past.
Before “Last Days Here,” I knew little of Pentagram. After seeing the film, I had to admit that they really were ahead of their time. A real Black Sabbath vibe.
A lot of people compare them to Black Sabbath, but they did their own thing. I think that Bobby was a huge Stooges fan. Rock that was grungy, heavy, scummy. They were total pioneers. Interestingly, if you look at Bobby, you see this man that ended up in this filthy place. But he truly felt most comfortable on the wrong side of the tracks, drinking with the winos. This came through in their music. Heavy, nasty and ugly.
There have been several films about fallen heroes and eccentric rock icons who are unearthed and re-discovered. I think of “De-Railroaded,” the story of Wild Man Fischer, and “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” How would you compare “Last Days Here” to these other films that tread similar ground?
When we hung with Bobby, we saw a glimmer of light in his eyes, and heard him get excited when he played music. All this drive to him… life had taken its toll on his body, but he still really had a sound mind. Other stories about fallen musical heroes on the fringes… those guys don’t really have a ton of movement in the present. We didn’t want to tell the past history of Pentagram. We wanted to follow a present-day journey.
What prompted you to find Liebling?
I was initially a Pentagram fan, and heard about the allure of Bobby; that he had always been this enigmatic but odd hero for the downtrodden. He really celebrates destruction and chaos in the way he lives, and he never made a dime. That initial footage you see was the first time we saw him. We left there thinking, we don’t have a story. He’s not going on any kind of journey. But then he perked up while playing music, and that kept us hanging around.
His stage presence is certainly bizarre. He doesn’t hold back. Do you feel that this is a large part of his appeal?
I think that’s definitely part of it – a face you can’t look away from. Those attributes get you the attention. Once he got the attention, he wanted to perform for you. One of the most amazing things in the film… we had met bobby during the first scene in the film (emaciated and confined to his parents’ basement), but ended up seeing him back onstage. He still had it in him. I would have never in a million years guessed that. But he did it like he was nineteen. Music performers these days hover around a microphone, just standing around. Very few performers are that natural. When Bobby’s going crazy, it’s very sincere. For better or worse, with all of the good and bad that comes with this. I really do think he’s rock and roll incarnate. He’s not much different whether he’s onstage, or listening to Stooges records at his house. He just exudes rock and roll.
Sean “Pellet” Pelletier appears as Bobby’s savior – the manager who pulls him out of the basement and resurrects him, in a sense. Most people would have given up on him. Why do you think Sean repeatedly tolerated Bobby’s difficult behavior?
Pellet loves and respects the power of music, his affection for music, and the change it had on his life. He doesn’t play music, but is someone super-obsessed with digging up old records… treasure hunting. In this case, he found THE GUY. The source of it all.
Another of the film’s incredible surprises is Bobby’s hooking up with girlfriend Halley, who is, surprisingly, a very young, attractive woman. Let’s face it. Bobby’s not nearly as photogenic.
It’s definitely unexpected. We had heard grumblings that Bobby had met a girl. What does that mean? You have certain expectations as to what she’ll look like – hard living, with a face that’s been around. Even if she’s attractive, a hard living woman. Then you see what happens. The thing that’s rewarding about the story is that it always defies your expectations. If we wrote it down as a script, no one would ever believe it. The less you know about the film, the better off, because the journey is so rewarding.
My favorite scene from the film involves, of all things, a sausage and egg breakfast. Not to give too much away, but it’s a heart-tugging moment. It blindsides you.
In some ways, it was against the grain. But in a weird way, (it showed that) Bobby had the adverse goal of Pellet, who was like, “Let’s put together a show, and get one last record in history books.” But Bobby really wanted to live. He wanted to start a life, not finish one. That’s a pretty beautiful scene…. these two characters in the kitchen. It’s not “rock ‘n roll,” but that was Bobby’s goal, completely.