Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Three kinds of love: The Pentagram doc

Last Days Here, a new documentary about a rock & roll singer named Bobby Liebling, brought me to tears and beyond. Broadly, it is a story about metal, specifically a doomy, post-Sabbath band from the D.C. area called Pentagram. Pentagram, with the wild-eyed Liebling at the mic, brushed up against fame in the ’70s but never attained it. Metal crate-digger types rediscovered the band in the early aughts, and they've since attained some pretty heavy-duty underground cachet.

But as I said, Last Days Here is only broadly about metal. It's really a love story. More specifically, it's a catalog of love's various incarnations: an emotional connection between friends, romantic partners or family members, a spiritual connection between a fan and an artist, a borderline-divine connection between humankind and this thing we call music. The film chronicles the way these noble forces wage war on the self-pitying, self-destructive urges that prey on us daily.

Yes, as the film openly—and, at times, revoltingly—acknowledges, Bobby Liebling is a drug addict. He is a recidivist, a chronic user, someone we might all feel compelled to write off. Someone who has perhaps written himself off. But, the film argues, he is not beyond hope, beyond uplift.

I don't want to spoil the details, but this is a film about a man teetering on the brink, falling down into the chasm and clawing his way back up. Now in the grand scheme of things, a junkie rock singer attempting to resurrect his career might seem like a petty struggle. But there is some of Liebling in all of us, us who get down, who get bleak and dark, but who remember all our blessings, our blessings of family, of partners who look out for us every day of our lives, of friends who would do anything to see a smile on our faces, of sweet, holy art, that takes us outside of ourselves and shows us something loud, overwhelming, glorious. Whether you love metal or not, you will see in this film what it means to love metal, to exalt in its spectacle, its satanic pantomime, its delicious gloom.

The film is about Liebling and his comeback road, yes, but it's also, crucially, about the nonperformers, the behind-the-scenes folks such as Sean "Pellet" Pelletier (that's him with Liebling in the clip above), a Philly-based metal booster who has made it his life's work to ensure that his favorite band (Pentagram, of course) get its due. As you'll see in the film, "above and beyond" doesn't even begin to describe the lengths to which Pellet goes to assist Liebling, but he does it all with a smile: Everything he gives to metal, the music gives back a hundredfold.

This movie will depress you; it will frustrate you and make you want to tear your hair out. It will also make you rejoice in your life's blessings, especially if metal happens to be one of those. The arc of Liebling's story isn't necessarily unpredictable, but it's nevertheless magical to watch it unfold. I wept openly at the end, sympathizing with just about every character onscreen, from the beleaguered Pellet to Liebling's clear-eyed companion Hallie and his perennially doting parents. Last Days Here turns "behind the music" into something truly profound and inspirational. It's a cautionary tale, a love story and a rock doc all in one. You have to see it.

There's a great new Pentagram album on Metal Blade called Last Rites. Check out some samples and pick up a copy here.


On the jazz side of things, I just checked out Solider of the Road, a very well-done documentary on another hardened lifer, Peter Brötzmann. It may not contain the revelations of Last Days Here—to be fair, its subject is far more level-headed and sane—but it's a sharp portrait of an artist I treasure.

I especially enjoyed the insights into Brötzmann's complex relationship with his German-ness, as well as the commentary from his master collaborators such as Han Bennink. The live footage looks and sounds gorgeous, and the interviews are intimate and revealing.

Soldier of the Road is a pretty straightforward—even low-key—work, without much of a narrative arc, but if you're a Brö fan, you should definitely check it out. You can learn more about the film and order a DVD copy here. (Don't be scared off if you're a U.S. consumer—my DVD arrived just days after I placed an order.)

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