[13 August 2012]
Last Days Here follows Bobby Liebling, the man behind the doom rock outfit Pentagram, through one of the darkest hours of his dark life. A quick primer about the man seems necessary because this film––which follows the by now predictable faded- rocker-suffers, then-returns-to-glory pattern––requires that you understand his significant legacy.
Briefly: Pentagram was formed more than 40 years ago in suburban Virginia, in the shadows of Washington, D.C., where Liebling’s father, Joe, served under three presidents and eight Secretaries of Defense. Since its inception, Pentagram has undergone numerous lineup changes that can perhaps only be rivaled by Mark E. Smith’s The Fall. Pioneers in the doom metal genre, the group solidified the sludge-intensive sound just ahead of bands such as The Obsessed and St. Vitus and long before stoner rock became the well-fortified genre it is today.
In its early years Pentagram released a handful of singles and even came to the attention of Kiss’s Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. The legendary duo was unimpressed with the group’s lacks of image and––by Kiss or any other standards––indefatigable amateurism. A demo session for Columbia Records circa 1974 came crashing to a halt, thanks to Liebling’s ego and inexperience.
The original Pentagram split up mid-decade, but Liebling put together numerous incarnations of the band over in subsequent years with varying degrees of failure. The vocalist’s increasing drug dependency and related mental and emotional problems gave labels, fans, and promoters pause. There were no-shows, onstage overdoses, and the usual onslaught of addict behavior.
But faster than you can say deus ex doobie, Sean “Pellet” Pelletier entered the picture. The record label employee came across Pentagram’s first album at a record convention, became immediately obsessed with the band’s sludge-fueled sound and, before long, found himself ensconced in Liebling’s inner circle, acting as the erstwhile contender’s manager.
This is––more or less––where our story begins. Liebling’s living in the “sub-basement” of his parents’ Virginia home, addicted to crack, coping with his heroin problem via methadone, and convinced that he has parasites living under his skin. Liebling’s hands are filled with scabs and one arm has a gaping wound that one must simply see to (dis)believe.
Here’s where it becomes difficult to discern which story the film is attempting to tell––the one about how Liebling, who is in his 50s at the time of the filming and looks like a man who is at least 70, will rise back to the top of the underground metal mountain, or the one about the family dynamics that are always intriguing and labyrinthine in such stories. It could be about both but neither is probed in a wholly satisfactory way––the family dynamics are sad and perhaps beyond repair; in the world of rock ‘n’ roll comebacks are hardly ever impossible but they are often mismanaged.
The excellent 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, about horror rock genius Roky Erickson, examined both its subjects greatness and the role his family played in both complicating and celebrating that success. Erickson had stopped playing music nearly 20 years earlier and retreated to a life of filth and poverty that was only exacerbated by his mental illness. But that Erickson was and is a great songwriter was not the ultimate point of the film––that he was a fragile human being, capable of expressing great beauty and worthy of tremendous respect and love, was.
The problem with Last Days Here is that it seems to revel just a little too much in its subject’s moderate celebrity. Let’s be clear about this: You can’t accuse Pelletier of exploiting Liebling. He clearly cares about the man but there are moments where he seems more determined to see Liebling’s star rise again than for the aged rocker to step back and actually get well––not just be able to get back on stage but to actually walk away with an improved sense of self and a greater sense of independence.
By the end of the film Liebling seems fragile enough that one has to wonder if he could sustain either a sneeze or a strong gust of wind. And that’s not the Liebling in grand performance but the Liebling who is about to become a father and is married and who makes his much younger wife breakfast.
That story––Let’s call it the Ballad of Bobby and Hallie––is another source of consternation. Liebling meets Hallie, a woman of 22, who becomes his main obsession, even beyond crack and methadone. She stays for a brief time, then leaves, and her departure threatens to derail any progress that Liebling has made toward his own recovery. (He’s at least able to move out of his mom and dad’s house, even if they’re paying for his apartment.)
The relationship is just another example of Liebling’s dependence. With Hallie he lightens up on the drugs; without her, he devolves into the scared addict who believes everything in his apartment is infested with scabies. That’s troubling. It’s hard to watch and one can’t help but observe that––like a great many addicts––Liebling has never really matured. When he speaks––especially near the film’s end––he sounds like a child and his behavior is almost always consistent with that.
We can’t find fault with Liebling for this. Surely he’s not aware of the full scale of his illness but watching it feels uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable only because of what’s happening but uncomfortable because this is perhaps one of those stories that is best left, at least for this moment in time, unseen. It may have been more dignified to tell the story of Pentagram without focusing as deeply on Liebling’s exhausting troubles.
Then again, we never really get a clear picture of what Pentagram’s real genius is. There’s vague, insider talk about how Liebling “lives the stuff he writes about” but we don’t really know what that “stuff” is unless we’re Pentagram stalwarts. There’s not really enough of the music in the film to convince us of the band’s awesomeness either and not much context for the farmhand in Iowa who wants to learn something by watching this movie but doesn’t know the Black Crowes from Black Sabbath. So, it becomes hard to determine whether we should be rooting for this guy’s resurrection based on artistic merit alone or thankful that someone’s about to save us from the second coming of Zamfir.
The majority of critics who have reviewed this film find that it has tremendous merit but this writer can’t help but feel a little empty at the end of Last Days Here, a sad film that, despite its intentions, doesn’t really deliver a great deal of hope.
Extras include several deleted scenes, including an alternate opening, a reunion between Liebling and original Pentagram drummer Geof O’ Keefe, the singer meeting and performing with the band Witchcraft, and a scene with Hank Williams III trying to explain what makes Pentagram great and not quite succeeding. The film’s trailer is also included.