A Philadelphia group makes its mark with documentary film

Bobby Liebling, the troubled front man of the '70s heavy metal band Pentagram, is the subject of "Last Days Here," directed by Don Argott and Damien Fenton and produced by Sheena Joyce.
Bobby Liebling, the troubled front man of the '70s heavy metal band Pentagram, is the subject of "Last Days Here," directed by Don Argott and Damien Fenton and produced by Sheena Joyce. (JEFF LEE)
Posted: March 08, 2012

Five movies in six years is no small feat.

Five movies in six years when you're based in Philadelphia and dealing with the hard realities of indie filmmaking - money, time, distribution, marketing - is no small feat, either.

And here Don Argott, Demian Fenton, and Sheena Joyce are happy to say they've had "a little bit of success." They are the collaborative team behind Last Days Here, a wonderfully strange and affecting portrait of a heavy metal demigod's fall into the abyss, which opens Friday.

Argott, who codirected this documentary about Bobby Liebling, troubled front man for the 1970s cult-metal band Pentagram, acknowledges that "you have to redefine what success is, but we've definitely been successful in being able to continue making films . . . . We must be doing something decent enough."

Indeed. With Rock School (a doc about Paul Green's School of Rock), Two Days in April (a doc about college football players prepping for the NFL draft), The Art of the Steal (a doc about the controversial relocation of the Barnes Foundation from Lower Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway), Last Days Here and The Atomic States of America (about "reactor communities," people who live around nuclear power plants - which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival), the trio have put themselves on the map.

"They're really exceptional documentary filmmakers that find stimulating subjects, get to the heart of it and tell a story that is compelling," says Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. "And they've done it over and over and over again."

Last Saturday, Argott and Fenton could be found sitting at a sidewalk table outside a South Street cafe. The night before, Last Days Here premiered in New York, and the directing duo were up there with Joyce, the film's producer, to do Q&As. (Joyce came down with food poisoning and missed the interview, but she is back at the Center City apartment she shares with Argott.)

Fenton, an editor and cinematographer - and serious metalhead - was not embarrassed to share some of the early reaction to Last Days Here. The Wall Street Journal called it "a heavy metal Grey Gardens," a reference to the Maysles Brothers' brilliant 1975 documentary about a mother and daughter stuck in time - and in squalor.

"I mean, that's it, check it off the life list!" Fenton says, smiling. In Last Days Here, Argott and Fenton find Liebling, addicted to crack, with his band long dissolved, living in his parents' basement in suburban Maryland. Shot over the course of several years, the documentary chronicles the singer's struggle to, well, get out of bed and get clean - and fan-turned-manager Sean "Pellet" Pelletier's noble efforts to get Liebling back on track. When they set out to make the film, Argott, Fenton and Joyce had no idea how the story would end.

"What was ironic was Last Days Here was really supposed to be our follow-up to Rock School," Argott says. "Because in 2006 we took that trip down to Maryland - and that first scene you see in the movie, the scene of Bobby showing us his old clothes, was shot on that first visit . . . . But, of course, we didn't finish the movie until 2010. It was a long journey."

In between, the filmmakers - who work out of an office in Center City - made Two Days in April and The Art of the Steal, which premiered at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

"All the while we were making those films, this film was gnawing in the back of our minds," Argott explains. "And fortunately for us, I think Bobby's life did move very slowly for a time back then . . . . If his life had been a little more accelerated, we might have missed a lot."

Adds Fenton: "There were times when [the project] was on a shelf and we never knew if it would come off the shelf. We didn't know how Bobby's life was going to play out."

Argott, Fenton, and Joyce are getting ready to move their company, 9.14 Pictures, to new digs across town. But the team say they have no plan to leave Philadelphia. Neither New York, nor Los Angeles, beckons.

"Sheena and I go out to L.A. a fair amount, because you have to," Argott says. "But I've always felt, and still do - and people like M. Night Shymalan have really made this thinking a little bit easier - that if you do good work, people will seek you out.

". . . And it's not like you need to be in Los Angeles to make documentaries. You're a product of your environment - not that we make Philadelphia-based stories, exclusively - but if we were in L.A. we would be sniffing out L.A.-type stories.

". . . But there's no reason that you have to be in that environment. And we're so close to New York. And the independent film world is so small. Everybody knows everybody else. Once you're in there, you kind of know all the players."

Fenton, who spent three years in the early 2000s commuting to New York to work as an editor ("me and all these stockbrokers on Amtrak every morning"), agrees.

"Frankly, I think it's Philadelphia that allowed the freedom for us to take a chance to make Rock School," Fenton says. "If you're in New York and the cost of living is what it is, you can't afford to take two weeks off, or not take a job . . . . There's a flexibility here because the cost of living is cheaper, so you can take risks. And it's that climate that allowed us to take the risk to make Rock School . . . and Last Days Here."

Next up for Argott, Fenton, and Joyce is another music-related doc, a film that will follow the Richmond, Va., heavy-metal band Lamb of God on a world tour. But if Rock School and Last Days Here are any indication, Argott and company will be getting more out of Lamb of God than just grinding power chords.

"It's going to be less about Lamb of God and more about how music is the one thing that unites people around the world," Argott says. "Rock School isn't a rock doc, and I don't think Last Days Here is one, either. If there's a music element to it, it's easy to say, 'Oh, it's a rock doc.' But we made a conscious decision that this wasn't going to be a Pentagram historical documentary, and we didn't want to fall into the traps or conventions of those types of films.

". . . Just about every write-up of the film says something along the lines of 'If you know nothing about Pentagram, you're almost better off.'

"And we're very happy about that."

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.See 'LAST DAYS' on C4

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