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A Rock Life, After the Hammer Falls
By TOM ROSTON
NEAR the start of the documentary “Last Days Here,” the co-director Demian Fenton asks Bobby Liebling, the lead singer of the band Pentagram, “Have you ever done anything else besides rock ’n’ roll?”
“Nothin’,” Mr. Liebling mumbles, sitting on a couch as he inhales from a crack pipe. “Yeah, this,” he adds, gesturing toward the pipe. “Drugs.”
On that first day of shooting “Last Days Here,” which opens on Friday in New York, Mr. Fenton and his co-director, Don Argott, interviewed Mr. Liebling for five hours in a hot room strewn with cigarette butts, eight-track tapes and broken 45’s; there was blood on the floor. Mr. Liebling, now 58, who wore bandages on arms ravaged by decades of heroin use and rubbed raw by compulsive scratching, played his band’s music on a stereo, from Pentagram’s hard-rock inception in the 1970s through its pioneering doom-metal phase in the ’80s, while he talked, smoked cigarettes and crack, nodded off and apologized.
The filmmakers were, unsurprisingly, concerned. “We didn’t want to document this poor guy dying in his basement,” Mr. Fenton said.
Sean Pelletier, Mr. Liebling’s on-again, off-again manager, was also in the room that day. “He was so nasty and wasted,” Mr. Pelletier said. “He was this person who no one would want to root for on screen. But I thought: ‘Finally, someone’s going to tell his story. And maybe we’ll get him out of here.’ ”
“Last Days Here” is the latest in a string of rock documentaries that not only aim to lift audiences but also to revive the faded careers of their subjects. The trend started with “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” released in 2009, an account of a sad-sack Canadian heavy metal band that never achieved front-line success but continued to rock on for decades nonetheless. Told with affectionate humor, “Anvil!” depicts the band members as heroes dedicated to a music they play loud, hard and occasionally with sex toys. Sacha Gervasi, the director and a screenwriter who had been a roadie for Anvil 20 years earlier, portrayed the band with an empathy that has since led to its renaissance.
“Do It Again,” from 2010, directed by Robert Patton-Spruill and produced by Geoff Edgers, is a love letter to the Kinks, depicting Mr. Edgers’s unsuccessful bid to reunite his favorite group. Last year’s “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone” brought fans up to speed with that Los Angeles punk-funk-ska band, which peaked in the ’80s and continues to mix it up in the mosh pit, albeit more gingerly. And at the Sundance Film Festival in January, “Searching for Sugar Man,” about two fans who try to learn whatever happened to the ’70s rocker Rodriguez, earned an Audience Award and comparisons to “Anvil!”
What distinguishes “Last Days Here” is what’s at stake. In 2006 Mr. Fenton, 36, and Mr. Argott, 39, Philadelphians who also play in a Black Sabbath-inspired band called Serpent Throne and who have collaborated — with Mr. Argott as director and Mr. Fenton as editor — on previous documentaries like “Rock School” and “The Art of the Steal,” heard “rumblings from the underground,” Mr. Fenton said, about Mr. Liebling’s condition.
Mr. Fenton, a fan of Pentagram’s brooding sounds, approached Mr. Pelletier with the idea of making a film about the singer, who was struggling to record a new album and get his life together. In addition to his decades-long drug addiction, Mr. Liebling had toiled in obscurity and had an uncompromising attitude that sometimes put him at odds with his revolving cast of band mates and producers.
A year before “Last Days Here” began shooting, Mr. Liebling overdosed during a gig in Washington. Though he made it onstage, he had to be propped up and collapsed before singing a line.
Despite the grim prospects for both the film and its subject, Mr. Fenton and Mr. Argott spent the next four years driving from Philadelphia to Maryland, where Mr. Liebling still lived with his parents, documenting his struggle to get clean, his tumultuous relationships and his moribund career.
“I was ready to die,” Mr. Liebling said in a telephone interview. “So I didn’t give a damn about being filmed.”
The supportive relationship that developed between filmmakers and subject is evident on screen: Mr. Fenton, along with Mr. Pelletier, is named in a contract in which Mr. Liebling promises to stop smoking crack or else give up his record collection. “The goal was always to see Bobby pull himself together,” Mr. Argott said. “There is that line where you ask, ‘Wait, am I a friend or a filmmaker?’ With intimate character pieces like this one, that line does get blurred.”
Mr. Liebling, who said he cried while watching “Last Days Here,” wishes his music were more prominently featured but said he believed that the documentary told a “touching” story. And it’s storytelling that ultimately drove Mr. Fenton and Mr. Argott, despite any personal investments. “Bobby had to be a character to us,” Mr. Argott said.
That sentiment is shared by Chris Metzler, a co-director of “Everyday Sunshine.” “We wanted our film to be successful for Fishbone,” he said. “But also for us as filmmakers.”
And yet, in the real world, not all subjects have happy endings. The results for these documentary stars have varied.
“Sacha made a movie, and it changed our world,” said Robb Reiner, the drummer of Anvil. “Everything changed completely.” After opening for AC/DC, playing “The Tonight Show” and maintaining a robust tour schedule, the members of Anvil have realized their dream: they no longer work day jobs and have become full-time musicians.
“Everyday Sunshine” and the band it portrays have not achieved the same level of popular success. Fishbone released an album and played shows close to the film’s release, and while it is enjoying an “upswing,” according to Norwood Fisher, a founder of the band, “things are better, but still not easy.”
And unlike Anvil, whose triumphant tour accompanied more than 50 screenings of “Anvil!” around the world, Pentagram has no scheduled coming-out party, though the band’s comeback album, “Last Rites” (Metal Blade Records), was released last April. Perhaps that’s partly because of the nature of Pentagram’s music, which is best played in dark shadows, at decibels too loud.
“It’s doom metal,” Mr. Pelletier said, referring to Pentagram’s current status. “There’s a gray cloud over us all of the time.”
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