Documentary film 'Last Days Here' chronicles the fall and rise of Bobby Liebling, a metal icon who went to pieces
5:49 pm Mar. 2, 2012
In March 2009, pioneering doom-metal act Pentagram took the stage at Webster Hall. It was one of the very few shows that the band had booked in recent years, and one of even fewer shows that they’d actually played, mostly due to frontman Bobby Liebling’s wildly unpredictable (and dysfunctional) mode of operating.
Comedian and musician Dave Hill, who was in the audience that night, wrote on his blog afterwards: “Pentagram were awesome, especially Bobby Liebling, who seemed really coherent compared to to what I was expecting. I’d heard all sorts of stories about him not showing up for gigs or just passing out before he could hit the stage, so it was nice to actually see him out there tearing it up.”
That Webster Hall show is featured as one of the final scenes of Last Days Here, Don Argot and Demian Fenton’s viscerally raw documentary set to begin screening at IFC today. The scene shows the band in front of a house packed with eager Pentagram fans, more than three decades past the peak of their influence, although that’s beside the point (the band's, and Liebling's influence has passed down through the decades, and it is profound). That Liebling was physically capable of showing up to the venue at all was victory enough, given what’s depicted in the hour and a half documentary that preceded the scene. The quality of his actual performance or its impact on Pentagram’s trajectory is of little to no import.
Last Days Here is not how you might imagine a Pentagram documentary in blurb form—a retrospective chronicle of the storied trek the band took from the early '70s to that victorious New York show in 2009, or an attempt to map out the reasons why they never reached Black Sabbath-levels of recognition. Instead it functions much more like an extended, season-capping episode of the addiction reality-show Intervention wherein the fuck-up at hand happens to be an important underground rock-and-roll figure.
We’re introduced to the Pentagram frontman, the demon-eyed Liebling, at his rock-bottom, sometime during the year 2007. He’s living in his parents’ basement and looking like one of the most mangled humans you’ve ever seen, addicted to crack, heroin and a laundry list of other substances, and so mentally unhinged as to believe the blackish dead skin covering some of his body is the result of an all-consuming parasitic disease. Little is provided in the way of history or context; he could almost be anyone. The film is propelled instead by the single underlying question of whether or not Liebling will ever manage to do anything but scramble for crack rocks buried between couch cushions and turn his aging parents’ hair even more gray.
We learn pretty early on that he will indeed rise from his parents’ basement, but like any good addict, he suffers a series of staggered steps forward and back. The film’s most joyful moments are those that reveal the tragicomedy of Liebling’s unending up-down cycle. Take a scene, for instance, where his manager, die-hard Pentagram fan Sean Pelletier, holds up a copy of Rolling Stone with Britney Spears on its cover.
“I found the perfect girl for Bobby!” he tells the camera. “She’s got no grip on ... they’re in the same reality space, but she’s got money. And she’s young and blonde. Fucking Britney, dude.” Or the scene where Liebling packs up his stuff to move to Philadelphia to be with his girlfriend, and his mother gives him the full going-away-to-college treatment.
“He’s gotta take winter boots, I don’t care what he says. Are they THAT dorky?”
As with Intervention and other shows of its nature, Argot and Fenton's decision to film Liebling’s struggle is catalytic if not crucial to Liebling’s real-life revival. Within the first few minutes of the documentary, we’re faced with the shudder-inducing prospect that he might have killed himself or spiraled further out of control had Argot and Fenton never decided to point their cameras at him.
“If you want me around,” he tells them, “I’ll stick around.” A bit later, he signs a meaningless pact with one of the filmmakers and Pelletier: “If Robert Liebling smokes crack after today, 10/17/07, Demian Fenton and Sean Pelletier will own Robert Liebling’s entire record collection.”
Taking aside Liebling's magnetism (we hear over and over what a compelling stage presence he once was, and may still be), Last Days Here is a triumph of extraordinary patience and editing—hundreds of hours of footage shot over the course of years have been trimmed down to something resembling a neat arc, albeit somewhat unpolished. But it’s also a triumph of immense good luck in choosing a subject with dueling capacities for the lowest rock-bottoms and the resilience to rise out from them.
'Last Days Here' screens at IFC Center today through March 8
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