He’s “grizzle” incarnate. Sagging skin droops from arms like the sleeves of an oversized sweater. Spindly, cotton-candy hair sprouts from a scabby scalp. He appears ninety, but curls up like a fetus on a grimy couch. His floor is covered in shards of vinyl records, crack pipes, and needles.
Welcome to the sordid world of Bobby Liebling, frontman for heavy-rock legends Pentagram. Well, “legends” might be a bit generous. The band have stumbled along, Anvil-style, for thirty years, but never quite hit the big-time. During the recent, popular resurgence of heavy metal, a groundswell of fans revived Pentagram’s popularity. Meanwhile, curiosity grew as to the reclusive Liebling’s whereabouts. Documentarians Don Argott and Demian Fenton (“The Art of the Steal”) embarked on a sonic scavenger hunt, intent on unearthing Liebling and resolving the mystery.
“Last Days Here” reveals their findings, and confirms the old saying that some mysteries are best left unsolved. When we initially get a glimpse of Liebling, festering in Germantown, Pennsylvania in his parents’ “sub-basement,” we’re aghast at this skeletal ghost of a man. I mean, REALLY aghast. Think Keith Richards times ten. Think Auschwitz. Journalist Ian Christie pretty much nails it when he describes Liebling as a “caveman found frozen… but with active DNA.”
It takes the most vivid of onscreen viscera to make me truly, physically ill. But the opening frames of “Last Days Here” literally made my stomach churn. Plagued by the persistent delusion that parasites burrow through his skin, Liebling picks at himself in a vain effort to remove the “bugs.” You don’t want to see the dermal deterioration beneath rolls of gauze wrapping his mutilated forearms. Trust me on this.
Flash back three decades. It’s 1971, and Liebling wins a reputation as one of rock’s most startling frontmen. He sports a spiked dog collar and bell-bottom pants. His bulging eyes have that same look of possessed mania subsequently borrowed by Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. Pentagram’s wicked riffs are Black Sabbath-heavy at a time when American bands weren’t supposed to embrace amplified doom of this caliber.
Reflecting back on their son’s early contributions to amoebic-stage heavy metal, even his straight-arrow parents insist that Pentagram’s amplified sludge-rock was “far superior” to that of other, more commercially successful bands.
Over the years, however, Liebling’s drug abuse and erratic behavior became the catalyst for botched record deals, and a revolving list of band members that makes Spinal Tap appear an intact anchor of stable personnel. Most devastating was Liebling’s determinedly super-human swan dive into the darkest recesses of substance abuse. At one point in the film, Liebling confesses to having done drugs and battled addiction for 44 years.
“Last Days Here” isn’t exclusively Liebling’s show. The film’s other key player is fan-turned-manager Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, whose persistent goal in life is to resurrect Pentagram. His mission? Guide the band towards the recording of its pièce de résistance. Sporting curly hair, glasses, and sideburns that go on forever, Pelletier is enthusiasm incarnate: the archetypal metal geek. Shelves of CDs line his apartment walls, alongside Kiss figurines, ivy plants, and wall rugs.
Will Liebling clean up his act and find redemption? Will Pelletier’s drive and encouragement revive Pentagram and resurrect the band’s career?
I’ll be honest. As the film wore on, I found myself becoming increasingly impatient with Liebling’s repeated, spectacular self-implosion. Unlike “Anvil,” with a duo of protagonists whose mutual respect and sincere efforts to stay in the game were oddly inspiring, here was a “protagonist” so obviously mentally ill and drug addled that it was virtually impossible to relate to his plight. At the one-hour mark, my empathy was quickly fading away.
Then… I’ll be damned if this grimy lost soul didn’t win me over – to a degree. Liebling finds love, and is suddenly, miraculously re-invigorated. His spider-web strands of gray hair are transformed by dye into a handsome black mane. He walks the streets with pep. There’s a swagger in his step. With the help of Pelletier’s obsessed persistence, it would seem that Liebling might be back in the rock ‘n roll game.
“Last Days Here” is an intriguing film, one that speaks the language of rock and roll obsession. Curators of aging vinyl discs, demo tape cassettes, and fading concert shirts will instantly identify with Pelletier’s devotion to a troubled heavy metal hero. Like Michael Cuesta’s recent “Roadie,” “Last Days Here” also reeks of melancholy. Watching Pentagram band members hashing over old boxes of flyers and magazine reviews – remnants of a better, more energized era – there’s a bittersweet sting of age taking the place of rage.
There are unnecessary touches that taint the film, including “re-enactments” of key historical chapters in the band’s train-wreck history. Are those really the legs of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons stepping from a luxury car to court the band? Is that really an embryonic Pentagram riffing away in grainy footage from yesteryear? There’s certainly enough information here to draw from without inserting phony short cuts to drive the story.
“Last Days Here” serves as a vivid reflection of the sweaty clubs, pot resin, and dark aesthetics of this world. Meanwhile, it shows us a man groomed to revisit ancient history, who ultimately desires a life in the future, not the past. But ultimately, is this a tale too late in the telling, about a man too spent for true salvation?
“He made a deal with the devil,” suggests one of Liebling’s onscreen acquaintances. “He sold his soul, and is fighting like hell to get it back.” Indeed. Stick with this sad-eyed wreck of a man as he comes to his senses, and I guarantee you this. By the time its credits roll, “Last Days Here” will serve up the best sausage and eggs breakfast you’ve ever had. Watch the film, and you’ll understand.