“There are tons of people who enjoy rock and roll. Bobby is rock and roll.”
That’s co-director Demian Fenton on Bobby Liebling, the subject of his new documentary “Last Days Here.” Liebling is the lead singer of Pentagram, a heavy metal band from Maryland that has become one of the genre’s biggest cult legends despite myriad lineup changes, tragedies, and false starts. For a variety of reasons explored in the film, Pentagram never made it big, but that hasn’t stopped Liebling from clinging to his rock and roll dreams. To Liebling, music is “beyond enjoyment,” says Fenton. “It’s beyond even adopting a few things as a lifestyle. It’s synonymous with him. That comes with all the trappings.”
The trappings, in this case, means drugs; as Fenton and co-director Don Argott (“The Art of the Steal,” “Rock School”) find Liebling at the start of the film, he’s middle-aged, living in his parents’ basement, smoking crack. His friend, fan, and part-time manager Sean “Pellet” Pelletier thinks Bobby has one more good record in him, but from the looks of Argott and Fenton’s footage, Liebling would be lucky if he has one more good week of life left in him. Scratching at hideous sores on his arms (which he claims are actually parasites), Liebling looks hours away from death. “Last Days Here,” indeed.
Improbably, Liebling begins to get his life back on track. With Pellet’s help, he revives Pentagram and himself; Argott and Fenton tag along for what becomes a surprisingly inspirational journey. The day after the Academy Awards, I spoke with Argott and Fenton over the phone about how they found Bobby’s story, whether they were ever worried it could end prematurely (not to mention tragically), and had them pick their favorite Pentagram song.
Did you guys watch the Oscars last night?
Don Argott: I just watched the documentary category.
Is the documentary category fixable? Are these new rules going to help or will it be a sticking point forever?
DA: It’s just an honor to be nominated. Which we’ve never been. [laughs]
It’s a weird thing. Somebody asked me about that a couple weeks ago, and I was like, you know what? We need to be plugging the Cinema Eye Honors; things that are more documentary-focused and friendly. Those are the really cool things, those are really your peers. The documentary category at the Oscars is obviously a huge honor but documentaries are never going to be elevated to the level that anybody wants them to be at that event.
Were you guys both familiar with Bobby’s music? How did you start shooting a documentary about him?
Demian Fenton: I love old ’70s rock. If you start to dig into old, obscure rock stuff, one of the first bands you find is Pentagram. Then you start to hear all these crazy stories about their lead singer, Bobby Liebling: that he lives in his parents’ basement, that maybe he died onstage, that he might be losing his arms, that they might need to be amputated because of heroin abuse. So I’d always heard about Bobby.
Then I was introduced to Pellet — he’s a longtime Philadelphia metalhead guy, so we were at a show together and we started gabbing about a potential project. We were pretty loaded and I don’t think he thought I was really serious about it, but I was.
Those first scenes of Bobby, where he’s strung out, desperately picking through his couch cushions for crack, are really harrowing. What were you guys thinking as you were sitting there shooting those moments?
DA: After Dem had come in after that weekend and said “I met this guy and there’s this great potential documentary here with this crazy dude and his music,” what we did — what we do all the time when we’re feeling out stories — is do some exploratory shooting. So we drove down to Georgetown, Maryland together, and that first scene in the film is literally the first day that we were there.
It was a pretty intense day. Dem and I have listened to metal our whole lives, but we’ve never gotten mixed up in any serious drugs or anything like that. I’d never been around anyone while they smoked crack before. You’re trying not to pass judgment, but at a certain point you look around the room and see where you’re at and go “What the fuck are we doing here?” I think the one thing we all recognized though, was that we had found not only a potentially amazing personality in Bobby, but somebody who was as raw and as unfiltered as you can get. Sometimes you never get that no matter how much time you spend with a subject. And here we were, we showed up with a camera and day one it was like full-on “This is me, warts and all, take it or leave it.” It was pretty intense.
DF: As hammered as Bobby was on that first day, when he started talking about music you could see a light in his eye. It brought him energy. And I think that was a little hook to keep us interested.
It does seem entirely plausible watching those scenes, though, that Bobby could have died at any moment. Did you guys ever discuss what you would do if that actually happened?
DA: I’m not sure it was ever overtly discussed but it was certainly there. You’re right; that was Bobby’s reality. At any point, the story could change.
DF: We didn’t really talk about Bobby dying per se, except in the sense that we did talk about the stakes in the movie, and the stakes for Bobby weren’t really reclaiming or gaining fame, they were trying to live. Those were his stakes.
That flows nicely into my next question. Bobby’s life has so many incredible twists. How many times did your own conception of what you were making change as a result?
DA: The original idea for the film was Pellet trying to get Bobby to make one last record. So it would have been a very predictable narrative with a goal and a person trying to carry that goal out. That was what we set out to document; clearly, what happened in the film was something else. But we still needed something to hinge it on; we couldn’t just make a movie about a guy sitting in a room smoking crack. And when we found that Bobby’s goals were really about trying to live again… that goal is infinitely more interesting and powerful than somebody trying to make another record. For us, that’s where the turning point was.
DF: That’s a big thing about Bobby’s life: at that point, it could change on a dime. It could go from something completely mundane, like 3 months in a basement doing nothing, to something completely amazing. In our minds, we were always thinking where the film was going to go, but with Bobby’s life you never knew. So many times we had these plans in our head and on notecards of where we were headed, but instead it went to a place none of us could have predicted. If you had written where this film goes in a fiction script, they would send it back for revisions because it’s too crazy.
The stories about Bobby as a young man often involve his perfectionism in the studio — or his being a control freak, if you’re feeling less generous about it. Did he ever treat you guys that way? Was he ever a control freak as a subject?
DF: He was like any other subject of a documentary would be. And I salute him for trusting us, especially early on, during such devastating times. Still, when it comes to talking music, and you get his record collection out and you want to try to debate something with him, there’s no having it. When you think about it, most people grow up and grow out of sitting in their room and throwing records on. But Bobby hasn’t. You pull out a Wishbone Ash record, he’ll know every song on the B-side in order, his favorite parts, everything. It’s pretty amazing. So he’s not too malleable when it comes to music. But he stayed away from coaching us when it came to the film.
Watching Bobby’s story, it does resemble other rock and roll stories in some ways, particularly in terms of the drugs. I found myself wondering why the rock star life so often ends up in substance abuse and even madness. Do you think rock and roll attracts people who are predisposed to those sorts of issues, or is that life so insane that it transforms ordinary people into somewhat unbalanced people?
DA: When you think about music, and specifically heavy music, you’re basically starting with people that feel like — and probably are — outsiders. I can certainly speak for myself, but my story’s the same as any other disaffected young teenager. When you hear that first Black Sabbath record, it hits you a certain way. You get kind of indoctrinated into this weird club.
DF: You’re not the same anymore.
DA: You’re not the same, and all of a sudden you share a ton of interests with a group of millions of people that you never met and might never meet. It’s this feeling of being an outsider, feeling like the world around you doesn’t make any sense. This music is the one thing those people gravitate to.
You’re dealing with guys who don’t fit into the norm. The type of people metal brings together are the kinds of people who have screwed up family lives or see the world differently than the way you’re “supposed” to see it. A lot of these guys in heavy metal bands started when they were 16, 17 years old. If they were lucky enough to make it, they haven’t done anything other than that. You find yourself in this weird world — which is certainly not where Bobby was — of rock and roll excess.
What’s the best Pentagram song?
DA: I like a song that’s not in the film, a song called “Be Forewarned.”
DF: That’s a tough one. For me, I love “First Daze Here.” The whole record. Every song.