Monday, August 6, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Streaming: Rock Will Never Die Double Feature: LAST DAYS HERE (2012) and HIT SO HARD (2012)

(US - 2012)

There's a number of scenes that are almost too painful to watch in this harrowing documentary about Bobby Liebling, frontman for the Washington, DC cult doom metal band Pentagram.  Liebling has been an underground metal legend for 40 years, yet when filmmakers Don Argott and Demian Fenton (ROCK SCHOOL, THE ART OF THE STEAL) find him in 2007, he's 53, addicted to heroin and crack, and living in the basement of his elderly parents' Germantown, MD home (his father worked for the Defense Dept).  Liebling spends his days wallowing in drug abuse, his gauze-covered arms riddled with track marks and open sores, and he's convinced parasites are burrowing under his skin.  He has a patient ally in friend, manager, and Pentagram superfan Sean "Pellet" Pelletier, a former Relapse Records staffer who seems to be devoting his life to the resurrection of Bobby Liebling, who's tried to keep Pentagram going through the years with a constantly rotating backing band, as all the past members get fed up and quit.  The original lineup of the band was brought to NYC in 1975 to record a demo with Blue Oyster Cult producer Murray Krugman, an early supporter of Pentagram who dubbed them "a street Black Sabbath," but a stubborn Liebling clashed with Krugman in the studio and the deal never happened.  Former guitarist Victor Griffin wonders why people even bothered buying advance tickets for Pentagram shows, as there was a 50/50 chance Liebling would be unable to perform or not even show up.  Footage of a disastrous 2001 gig shows then-guitarist Joe Hasselvander letting the audience take turns at the mic when Liebling is a no-show, then when Liebling finally appears onstage during the last minute of the last song, they almost come to blows.  At a 2005 show, a catatonic Liebling has to be carried on stage and propped in front of the mic like a sick WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S homage, then he collapses into the drum set.  In short, the man is a wreck and looks to be at death's door. That comprises most of LAST DAYS HERE until Liebling finally decides to get his shit together. 

Argott and Fenton could've easily turned this into a rubbernecking freakshow, but they don't.  While not shying away from the brutal, and frequently disgusting, state of Liebling's life, they still regard him with respect and dignity.  They took breaks in filming at various points, and we catch up with Liebling some months later, and we never know if he'll be better or worse.  When he finally gets better, you'll almost feel as overcome with emotion as Pelletier does.  The filmmakers do somewhat assume the audience is at least a little familiar with the metal scene, so it may take neophytes a bit longer to get acclimated with the film and who some of the peripheral figures are, but the redemptive story of Liebling is riveting regardless of your musical tastes.  I wish the filmmakers didn't let Liebling's parents disappear from the film.  One of the best moments is a brief aside of his mother chuckling as she says "He always tells me he'll be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year or next," and we next see Liebling frantically searching for a crack rock that fell between the couch cushions.  (Unrated, 92 mins)

(US - 2012)

An occasionally interesting but unfocused and often rambling look at former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, HIT SO HARD uses a lot of camcorder footage shot by Schemel herself while touring with Hole in the '90s.  Schemel, a recovering addict clean for six years at the time this was made, comes across as very natural, honest, and down to earth, but director P. David Ebersole can't really decide what he wants with HIT SO HARD.  For a documentary ostensibly about Patty Schemel, there's going to be a lot of Hole, and that's vital to her story, but Ebersole seems to get sidetracked with Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, who appear quite frequently in some of Schemel's camcorder footage. He could've told Schemel's story without once again telling Cobain's, but he probably needed an excuse to use all of the exclusive footage that Schemel had, including a lot of Cobain with daughter Frances, and while it's very moving to see him as a loving, doting father goofing off with his daughter and difficult to fathom that he'd kill himself just a few months later, it doesn't really belong here.  Schemel talks of her struggles with drugs and the music business from her perspective as a female drummer and an out lesbian, and there's a very emotional segment where her mother recounts 17-year-old Patty inadvertantly coming out to her friends after an awkward pass made at one of them, but there's not enough of stuff like that.  Even the film's trailer can't stay focused on what it's supposed to be about.

HIT SO HARD finally finds some momentum once Schemel leaves Hole after being replaced in the studio by session drummer Deen Castronovo during the recording of 1998's Celebrity Skin, and goes on to become a homeless crack addict, but most of it is just the usual stories of drugs, the record biz, the rigors of touring, etc.  Featuring Love (who, of course, takes the opportunity to once again trash-talk Cobain's Nirvana bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, because that has a lot to do with the Patty Schemel story), Hole bandmates Eric Erlandson and Melissa Auf der Maur (who replaced late bassist Kristen Pfaff and seems to have been Schemel's closest ally in the band), Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum, plus notable female drummers Debbi Peterson (The Bangles), Gina Schock (The Go-Gos), Nina Gordon (Veruca Salt), and Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson), and, for some reason, NPR "social observer" Sarah Vowell, HIT SO HARD is probably worth seeing for any fan of the '90s alt rock explosion, but Ebersole just never really brings it all together and there's a frustrating lack of direction to the whole project.  As cool as she comes across and with nothing but respect for her kicking drugs and getting her life together, is Schemel's story really worthy of a 103-minute film?   With the way Ebersole pads the running time with concert footage and Sarah Vowell getting choked up about Kurt Cobain's death, I'd say probably not. At least with LAST DAYS HERE, covered above, there was a dramatic element to the Bobby Liebling story as the filmmakers followed him as the story unfolded.  Feeling like an overlong DVD extra, HIT SO HARD would've made a great hour-long VH-1 BEHIND THE MUSIC episode, but a feature film? (Unrated, 103 mins)

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