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Tracking a Heavy-Metal Near-Casualty in Last Days Here

The subbasement tapes

When we're first introduced to emaciated, bug-eyed, trembling Bobby Liebling, the fiftyish frontman of the frequently dormant cult metal band Pentagram and the subject of this small-scale but weirdly engrossing documentary, he's showing off his past stage outfits: perfectly preserved hip-huggers purchased in 1967, "paisley shit," chiffon scarves. "I was saving them for when I got big. And that never happened, so I saved them forever," the crack, heroin, and meth addict says in the subbasement of his parents' Germantown, Maryland, home, where he has resided for decades. In the kitchen, Liebling's chain-smoking mother seems inured to the fact that her son will become a rock-and-roll suicide. But he promises his chroniclers, Don Argott and Demian Fenton, that he will not die: "If you guys want me around, I'll stick around."

That, astonishingly, he does, even managing to get his career back on track, provides the arc of Last Days Here, an affectionate look at a self-destructing maniac and his supporters that bluntly reveals Liebling's total abjection ("Did you see where the big piece of crack went?") without mocking him. Like Argott's The Art of the Steal (2009), a lively doc on the Barnes Foundation, which was also facing a highly contested, uncertain future, Last Days Here is invested in a subject often one pipe hit away from extinction. Argott and Fenton (who edited both Art of the Steal and Argott's first doc, 2005's Rock School) track Liebling for three years and briskly braid every hopeful moment with its concomitant setback.

Wondering whether he's on his own path of self-immolation is Philadelphia-based Sean "Pellet" Pelletier, a onetime indie-record-label employee who became Liebling's friend and manager after discovering Pentagram's first album ("It was just so fuckin' heavy"). Even this sunny superfan's patience has limits, which can't be said of Liebling's parents, Diane and Joe (who served as an Defense Department adviser to Nixon and other presidents). Joe, who notes that he and his wife have spent more than a million dollars on Liebling, only wishes for his son "to be in the range of normalcy." Diane brings her child Fig Newtons and assures him for the millionth time that he doesn't have a parasitic infection. (To "protect" himself from this unshakable delusion, Liebling wears tattered, soiled gauze bandages on his spindly, scarred arms.)

"Perfect for 1974": Liebling, with the cancer stick
C. Davidson
"Perfect for 1974": Liebling, with the cancer stick

Details

Last Days Here
Directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton
Sundance Selects
Opens March 2, IFC Center

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What inspires such devotion? Pioneers of doom metal, Pentagram, which Liebling founded in 1971 in northern Virginia with friend Geof O'Keefe, are praised by Columbia Records producer Murray Krugman as "street Black Sabbath" and "a band that was perfect for 1974." Krugman arranged for the band to record a demo in New York in 1975—even by that year, Pentagram had burned through a long list of managers and band members, several of whom are interviewed here as firsthand witnesses of the havoc Liebling wrought. The lead singer's petulance with Krugman destroyed the band's chances for a major-label deal, yet Liebling has managed, largely through the efforts of younger enthusiasts like Pelletier, to keep Pentagram going ever since—even after OD'ing backstage in 2005 at a venue in D.C.

Revealing Liebling's other admirers would spoil some of the film's completely unpredictable developments—twists that give emotional and structural heft to a story ripe for the kind of bottom-feeding rubbernecking that thrives on cable. Last Days Here, strung together with intertitles that read "A few months later," sometimes skips over salient details: We never learn the length of Liebling's jail sentence, which occurred during filming, for instance. But Argott and Fenton's respectful persistence in following the terrifying near-corpse we see at the beginning of the film pays off—especially when, during one of Liebling's onstage triumphs in 2009, the wizened rocker looks out and announces, "Without you, I ain't."

 
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1 comments
Manda12XU
Manda12XU

Great review to what I agree is a great film. I thought about it for days afterwards and how it related to my own life. I wonder if Pelletier is single?

 

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