Listening to the early recordings of the heavy metal band Pentagram, songs including “Forever My Queen,” “Earth Flight,” and “Last Days Here,” it’s easy to see why their small but devoted fan base considers them to have been one of the best bands of the early seventies. Their raw recordings manage to feel angrier than The Who and boast more “street cred” than Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, employing songwriting and musicianship on the same level as that era’s greatest bands. For decades, fans have been bootlegging and scouring the underground music scene for Pentagram recordings.
With viral music taking off in the past decade via social media, new audiences have discovered the music of Pentagram, inevitably wondering why the band never “made it big.” The answer to that question has become the stuff of legends, with the truth lying in a Pennsylvania basement, where Pentagram lead singer and songwriter Bobby Liebling has fallen victim to decades of heroin and crack addictions, among other forms of self abuse. At 54, Liebling looks to have one foot in the grave, yet with his talent in tact, and buoyed by the support of friends, family, and fans, could be on the cusp of reclaiming his band, life, and career. Last Days Here, the latest film from acclaimed documentarian Don Argott, (Rock School, The Art of the Steal) and his editor-now-co-director Demian Fenton, follows Liebling in his quest for recovery and redemption, as Liebling and those around him wonder if he can get and stay off drugs long enough to make a comeback.
Last Days Here opens at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles tonight (March 23), with Argott and producer Sheena M. Joyce in attendance for Q&As. I recently spoke with Argott and Fenton, and enjoyed a spirited chat about their collaboration, the unique challenges this project posed, and crafting Last Days Here.
Jackson Truax: What were your first experiences with the music of Pentagram? How did that lead to you meeting Bobby?
Demian Fenton: My first experience with Pentagram was [when] some dudes I knew from North Carolina that were in a band came through. They had a cassette of I think four Pentagram tunes. I thought that was cool. Down the line, I got “First Daze Here” when it came out. When you start digging into Pentagram, you start hearing these stories about Bobby Liebling. You hear all these rumors that his arms are amputated because of so much heroin, and that he lives in his parents’ basement. That piqued our interest. There’s an interesting allure in the metal underground about Bobby Liebling.
Don Argott: I came to it a little bit late. [Fenton and I] have a ‘70s instrumental rock band. Both of us grew up on ‘70s rock. We’re huge Black Sabbath fans, Led Zeppelin fans, things like that. When you get a little older and you start discovering some of the more obscure ‘70s bands…Cactus and that type of stuff, those bands are really great, but there’s something about hearing Pentagram for the first time. They don’t have a couple really good songs, peppered in with a lot of other shitty songs. Every one of the songs is fucking amazing. [We asked], “How is it possible that this band didn’t make it big?” I can understand why Cactus didn’t make it big. They’re awesome, but they don’t have a breadth of work that’s unbelievable.
Fenton: But you don’t understand why Pentagram didn’t make it big.
Truax: With all the documentaries you guys make, you invest so much time, effort, and energy into following these subjects and crafting these films, and you clearly spent years with Bobby. What’s the litmus test you guys use when you set out, of whether or not a subject will make a compelling film, and if you’ll want to spend years working on it?
Argott: It always comes down to great stories, great access, and great characters. If all those things are there, it makes it really easy for us… On [Last Days Here] I think there [were] two out of the three early on. The third one that wasn’t there so much was the story. We didn’t know what the story was going to be. But we knew we had a great character in Bobby and we knew we had great access… There was enough going on there that I think both of us felt that it was worth feeling out and seeing where it was going to go. There would be months where we didn’t shoot anything and then something would happen. That’s just how the story progressed.
Fenton: When we really started to feel rumblings that Bobby was truly going to move out of the basement, we knew that there was going to be some sort of journey… We knew we didn’t want to make a movie about this guy just destroying himself in his parents’ basement… We understood there was going to be a journey to follow. We had no idea where it would take us… That’s when we knew there was more tape to be shot.
Truax: Last Days Here gives a history of sorts into Pentagram, without being too driven by exploring the tumultuous 40-year history of the band. There’s also a history of sorts given about Bobby’s demons, but the film just scratches the surface of that. How did you decide how much of the band’s history or Bobby’s history you needed to show, versus how much of the film should be driven by Bobby’s present-day struggle for redemption?
Fenton: We knew we didn’t want to make a rock doc… we’re more into character pieces and the present-day journey. When we met Bobby, there wasn’t a lot of music happening… So to make a movie that was full of music…didn’t feel totally right… I think rock docs fall into this trap sometimes. They’re trying very hard to convince you or convey to the viewer that this music was amazing, and it’s the second coming of The Beatles… We didn’t want to get into that… We wanted to show…this guy. Whether you like the music or not, there’s a story here… You don’t need to love Pentagram’s music to watch this film and go on that journey.
Truax: Demian, you’ve edited all of Don’s films and now share a co-directing credit on Last Days Here. Editing plays such an important role in the crafting of documentaries. Was this just a function of a change in credit? Or had you role in the filmmaking process evolved?
Fenton: This was a film where there was no budget, so there were no resources. Most of our films are all-hands-on-deck. Our producer Sheena and I really do fulfill [all] these roles. But in this one it got so blurry… We don’t really haggle over credits too much… But it just seemed like that’s how it worked. Oddly enough, Don doesn’t have an editing credit, but he put together the first assembly of the film, after I had been pretty beaten up by editing The Art of the Steal… We don’t have a lot of resources, but the resources we do have [are] the skills to just grab gear and go work on something.
Argott: Demian really took the lead on this film from the get-go… We all wear multiple hats. Even though we’ve done things a certain way in the past where I’ve directed the films and shot the films, this was just a different animal… Demian became really immersed in the story and was more [involved] in the day-to-day of the shooting, which is something that I normally do… We were both bringing a lot to the table… We don’t battle over credits. But I think it’s important to recognize who does what. Demian was definitely carrying for torch for the entirety…of the shooting of this film. Without the time that he put into it, it wouldn’t be the film we have, no question.
Truax: On Last Days Here you guys did something that could be a point of almost certain controversy within the documentary community, which is you show Bobby signing a contract with you guys saying he’s going to stop doing crack for the duration of filming. Did you ever having mixed feelings about being documentarians that almost interject themselves into story of their subject?
Argott: We don’t really like that kind of style. I prefer films where the filmmaker’s not a part of it. In certain cases like Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), they’ve made it work for themselves. They’ve become personalities and brands. I feel [with] every film that we’ve done, there’s always that element in there of somebody asking a question off-camera… I always battle against that. I don’t want to hear my voice… In this case…the film starts out with the idea that you know that there’s a camera there. I think that helps the intimacy of the story a lot… In the scene in the opening credits… Bobby was slumped in the couch. Demian…said, “We’re afraid you’re going to die.” Without that… his line doesn’t make sense, “If you guys want me around I’ll stick around.” I think right off the bat, it lends this [sense] that we’re on the other side of the camera, but we’re as involved in this story as Bobby is.
Fenton: This film, it’s shot [digitally]. It’s got this up-close-and-personal feel. We certainly did get immersed in the story personally, but I think in ways the viewer can see. It’s almost tough to think of us in that scenario not doing anything, not actually trying to be a little bit of a positive force in one way or another. I think that puts the viewer in our shoes, which I think is a relationship a lot of people have when they deal with addicts, people they love, people they care about, family members… Things can get really rough really [quickly] when you’re in that scenario. We were dangling back-and-forth, just wanting to help [Bobby] and make the film.
Truax: You guys also created reenactments of some of the early events that would in a way define the history of Pentagram, which included Demian playing a young Gene Simmons. How did you come to decide to include those re-enactments, and then execute them as you did?
Argott: It was really just simply a lack of resources. There are these stories in the film that were pivotal, with…very little archival support. When you basically are putting a timeline together and you have a story… and you basically have a bunch of talking heads with no photos or archival footage, it’s pretty tough. I think we made that call pretty early on… Both of us are not huge fans of reenactments in films… This is one of those films where we broke a lot of our own rules… It was all about serving the story… If we had photos or real footage, obviously we wouldn’t have had to rely on reenacting it. I also think there’s another thing at play, which is the first act of the film is really fucking dark. The [reenactments] provide a little bit of backstory, but they also provide a little bit of levity. So we embraced that… Some people might think that the reenactments are a little bit goofy, and they kind of are. They’re a little bit more of a light moment in an otherwise pretty dark story up until that point… We knew where the story was going to go…there’s still that first half-hour. We spent a year or two in the basement with Bobby. It’s a fucking desperate place… You start to feel that as a viewer… We needed to lighten it up a little bit.
Fenton: We wanted the viewer to feel fatigued enough that it affects the viewer as much as it affected us. [And] we wanted them to get through the first thirty minutes of the movie.
Truax: You guys seem to have had almost unlimited access to every aspect of Bobby’s life during filming. How did you get the footage of him in the hospital? Since you’re not related, it seems like it would have been hard for you to come in and film footage for a documentary.
Argott: That scene was a pretty desperate night. It was really late at night. We had been swirling around the hospital for hours. Essentially, there was a very cool doctor who made me promise I wouldn’t shoot anyone else… They locked us in this little room and they made me not roll when any doctors or hospital people were around. But they were really, really cool. That night was really interesting. The people there were really supportive of Bobby… They were just trying to be really understanding of the situation. Somehow, part of that, they were understanding of our documenting this.
Truax: The film covers the period when Bobby’s comeback is stalled again because he’s in jail. Did you guys try and go inside the jail at all and get any footage or interview him? And why didn’t that aspect of his story appear in the film?
Fenton: That whole thing, it played out like it played out in the film. He just vaporized for a second. We lost touch with him. It wasn’t like we understood he was in jail… He could have been [in] a ditch somewhere. He could have been under a subway trying to find people to do drugs with. No one knew where he was. So the most interesting part of that was his disappearance… He was in [jail] for a little while… But…the most interesting thing was the panic people feel when they have an addict in their life. Even if someone is doing well, there’s always this idea that at any moment they could vanish and [it’s] total chaos or trouble or death… That’s what really struck me more about that moment than him just sitting in jail. And we weren’t allowed in either. In some ways, it became how [his friend] Pellet dealt with that… It’s a really interesting moment when he says, “I’m almost glad he’s in jail, because I know he’s safer there than if he’s not.”
Truax: Last Days Here played a bunch of festivals last year, and around that time Pentagram seemed to be playing a lot of shows, releasing a lot of stuff, and really making a comeback. What has the journey been for Bobby and the band since then? Do you know what they’re up to now and what the future might hold?
Argott: Bobby, he’s still kicking away. I heard that they’re maybe doing another record, and there’s some touring. He’s not doing five months at a time. He’s doing a couple dates here and there… It doesn’t feel like a huge comeback necessarily… Right after we were done filming, he did a European tour. I think he did a west coast tour and an east coast tour. But now…he’s just doing a few dates here and there. It’s harder to stay on the radar when you’re just doing a couple dates around the country or around the world. But he’s still doing it… Last I heard, he’s going into the studio to make a new record.
Truax: If Last Days Here gets widely seen this year and gets all the accolades it deserves, what’s the ultimate impact you hope the film might have? Either on the individuals who see it or our culture on a greater scale?
Fenton: On the surface, people feel that it’s a rock doc or it’s about heavy metal. What we’ve learned from traveling around…the world…is that various people of all shapes and sizes, ages and races…can tap into the movie in different places on different levels for different reasons… Everybody takes their own little lesson away from it… I’d love for some people to see this film and realize that at any point, at any time, anything’s possible in your life, if you want to give it a risk. I think that’s a pretty empowering thing to understand about life when the small stuff starts to pile up… Bobby, giving a rip at regaining his life is pretty inspiring.
Argott: Every film that you do…you know how much time and effort and energy you’re putting into it… It’s not like they make a ton of money. It’s not like we’re doing it for the money… This film, people have just been really genuinely blown away and moved by it… You can’t really ask for more than that. When you put something out into the world that you know is going to get critiqued, because that’s just the world that we live in and certainly the business that we’re in, people love to just put their own comments and opinions on a piece of art… It’s a satisfying thing when [people] cry at it [or] they’re just speechless afterwards. Those are the reasons that we still do it. We’re always striving to make the best possible thing and put it out there… If I can make something that affects people, that’s just a great feeling.
Read the LiC review of Last Days Here.
Filed under: LiC Interview