Last Days Here
by Warren Curry
If one were asked to describe what they think the drug-addled vocalist of an unsuccessful ’70s heavy metal band would look like in the 21st century, they might describe someone with a resemblance to Bobby Liebling. However, the person described in this hypothetical scenario likely would not have the genuinely unsettling appearance of Liebling when we first meet him. Emaciated by years of drug abuse, the vocalist of the Maryland-based heavy metal band Pentagram appears to be gravelly ill when he’s introduced to viewers in Don Argott and Demian Fenton’s latest documentary, “Last Days Here.” Think of this, perhaps, as the dark counterpart to “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.”
Argott and Fenton, who worked together respectively as director and editor on the immensely enjoyable documentary “Rock School,” tell the story of a man whose hopes of achieving rock and roll stardom have been dashed many times over. Described early in the film as not so much a cult band, but rather one that was simply forgotten, Pentagram were pioneers of a style of hard rock known as doom metal. To call them America’s answer to Black Sabbath wouldn’t be a stretch, but very few people actually heard their early music until decades after it was recorded.
While Liebling is the documentary’s subject, the film has something of a secondary protagonist in Sean Pelletier, a champion of Pentagram and indie record label employee, who essentially stumbled into the role of Bobby’s manager. Throughout the movie we watch as Pelletier (mostly) patiently deals with Bobby’s numerous lapses into self-destructive behavior, resolutely determined to connect Pentagram’s music to a larger segment of fans. This isn’t a job for the uncommitted.
Several ex-Pentagram members confirm Liebling’s erratic behavior. It’s not uncommon for Liebling to show up late, or not at all, to performances (he OD’s backstage before one gig) and he blew the band’s biggest chance at mainstream success when he butted heads with well-regarded producer Murray Krugman during a recording session. Liebling now lives with his parents in suburban Maryland (his father worked as an adviser to Presidents Johnson, Ford and Nixon) where he continues his life of abuse, believes his skin is infested with parasites and obsesses over a woman who has filed a restraining order against him. This behavior eventually results in temporary jail time.
What seems to have all the markings of tragedy ultimately turns out to be a somewhat uplifting story. At first, when seeing Liebling’s ravaged appearance, you wonder how this documentary could be anything but exploitative, yet as it unfolds it becomes clear the filmmakers have genuine compassion for their subject. If Liebling doesn’t always come across as a sympathetic figure, Pelletier is depicted as one driven by the best intentions. “Last Days Here” can be viewed as an underdog story, but this time the underdog has more warts than usual.
The filmmakers don’t include much in the way of archival footage, but what we do get to hear of Pentagram is impressive (to these ears, anyway). I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the band were ahead of their time. Who knows if their music would’ve been appreciated had it been heard on a larger scale in the ’70s, but it does seem a shame their recordings were hidden from the public for so long.
“Last Days Here” can make for difficult viewing at times, and Bobby Liebling, understandably, is a person some potential viewers won’t want to spend 90 minutes of their lives with, but there are ultimately silver linings in the dark clouds of this rewarding film.
Last Days Here (USA/2011)
Directors: Don Argott, Demian Fenton
Not Rated, 90 minutes
(Sundance Selects. Opens in Los Angeles on March 23, 2012. Opened in New York City on March 2, 2012.)