SundanceNOW’s DOC CLUB is in full swing this October with “Music Month,” a curated program of documentaries pertaining to music and musicians, which includes Spike Lee’s “Passing Strange” and the previously mentioned “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)” Also on the roster is another great film (and one of this writer’s top picks of 2012), Don Argott and Demian Fenton’s “Last Days Here.” The creative team from “The Art Of The Steal” take a look at the virtually unknown and deeply undersung 1970s heavy rock band Pentagram, detailing their history and the troubled life of frontman Bobby Liebling right as he prepares to do one last album.
A fascinating figure who’s burnt out, crack-addicted, and living in his parents’ basement while in his mid ’50s, the heavy-metal rocker’s life takes an unexpected turn when he falls into a serious relationship with an attractive, much younger woman named Hallie. At this point the film continues to document the re-emergence of Pentagram (think of a Black Sabbath-type group that was never discovered) but also devotes considerable time to this curveball, creating a very human, inspiring story story that makes it more than just a flick for hard-rockers (though they’ll love it too).
The compelling documentary is a film that flew under many radars — possibly because skeptics thought it was a straight bio of the band or assumed it was an exploitative look at a typical drugged rockstar has-been — but it’s a much more special movie than that, and being attached to a special program like DOC CLUB will hopefully bring fresh eyes to it.
”The market continues to change for independent film and I can say for myself that we aren’t watching movies these days the same way. I think it’s important to have these outlets because it’s really how everything has been funneling,” admitted Argott. “The most important thing is that your film gets out there and seen, no matter how they see it. There’s so many films being made now and it can’t all go to a movie theater, that’s just the reality of it.” Since the film has been available online, Argott says that the team get kind emails almost daily by those who have just recently stumbled upon it.
A fan of Pentagram for awhile, Fenton describes the gestation of the film as starting off rather randomly. “I’ve been a fan of just of ’70s rock forever and was familiar with the various legends of Pentagram frontman Bobby Liebling: that he died on stage, that he had his arms amputated from shooting so much dope. I met someone at a show with close ties with Bobby and from there I pitched the movie. Don and I went down and the first scene in the film is the first day we met him.”
But the duo didn’t want to just make a biography of the band — they provided the context, but the original idea was to have “Last Days Here” be an intimate character piece. All of that changed once Hallie came into the picture. “We were initially hinging that the film would be about him making this last record but then all the sudden it became this weird, fantastic love story.” Argott went on with a laugh, mentioning that Liebling had some issues with honesty and they weren’t sure if they believed this romance at first. “We have plenty of interviews on camera of that we couldn’t use because they were all just bullshit. But when it turned out to be true, we all collectively realized that this was a much bigger film than we ever thought it was going to be.”
Their subject alone raises a particular issue: for a good chunk of the movie, Liebling is deteriorating right in front of them and freely partaking in hard drug use. As it stands, some audiences may find the material exploitative, a notion that both filmmakers wrestled with constantly while working on the film. “Honestly, any time you point a camera at anybody going through a dark period you could say that it is exploitation. But there’s truth and honesty in that as well,” stated Argott. “We didn’t want to do a disservice to Bobby and his reality. If he was okay showing us his scars and what he was going through with a camera present, therein lies a connection to him.” Fenton continued, “It’s our job to show these things and show how people got there. We’re not there to show a shocking scene of a guy dying in his basement, we’re there to show a guy getting his life back together and to explore where he’s at now.” Still, it makes for a complex issue, and it’s up to the audience whether they accept it or not.
Fenton also concludes that both the filmmakers and subject were put in awkward situations. ”When you’re dealing with an addict, this idea of exploitation gets really murky. There were times when I was not a filmmaker: I was a therapist, I was helping, I was getting phone calls from him,” he confides, noting that the uneasiness was mutual. “There were ups and downs on either side and a constantly push and pull. Everyone’s got their own ‘agenda,’ we wanted to capture his story. We can’t deny that.”
At the moment the team is touring the circuit with their new documentary “The Atomic States of America,” but in they’re also back in dingy rock-club mode and covering a more contemporary metal outfit: Lamb of God. “Right after we had wrapped ‘Atomic’ we had started this film with Lamb Of God called ‘As The Palaces Burn,’ following their tour and films around the world,” Argott mentioned. But then there was another devastating curveball. “Soon, singer Randy Blythe was arrested in the Czech Republic on charges of manslaughter. It took an insane turn. We’re almost done, but he might face trial there, so we’re waiting to see what happens with that.” The filmmakers plan to go the “Last Days Here” route with this one as well, appealing to fans of the band but at the same time making the substance of the documentary something more universal.