Catching Fire (2024)

Anita Pallenberg with Keith Richards and son, Marlon, in “Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg.”

Anita Pallenberg doc never quite catches fire

Model, actress, groupie, muse, harbinger of death. That’s how  “Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg” sums up the life of its subject, portraying her more as a parasite than an artist whose influence on pop culture wasn’t limited to serving as the drug-addicted partner of rock icon Keith Richards. In truth, she was a bona fide trendsetter whose brains and keen fashion sense were independent of any man. 

    But that’s not the way directors Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill present it, despite having Pallenberg’s unpublished memoir as a blueprint. Instead, they envision her as a real-life Goldilocks who sampled each of the three founding members of the Rolling Stones before finding the one who was just right. And once settled on Richards, it’s suggested that she permitted him to define her, provide her relevance and cache, until he and their kids up and left her in 1979. After that, the film treats her as little more than a historical footnote. 

    This is particularly disappointing considering Bloom did an excellent job of chronicling a fellow pot stirrer, Roger Ailes, in 2018’s “Divide and Conquer.” On this endeavor, she and first-timer, Zill, allow themselves to become overly starstruck by Pallenberg’s long association with the “World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band.” The filmmakers rush through Pallenberg’s turbulent youth, a child of Italian and German heritage born in Rome midway through World War II, and her decision as a young adult to flee to America where she quickly became a cog in Andy Warhol’s Factory.

  It’s as if the directors underestimate their audience’s interest in delving deeper into Pallenberg’s childhood and knowing how a 21-year-old “nobody” fresh off the boat from Europe was able to instantly impress Warhol. Breathlessly, they fast-forward to the fateful night in 1965 when she attended a Stones concert in Munich, where she managed to slip backstage and into the life of guitarist Brian Jones. They hit it off instantly, wowing the Fleet Street press, who noted how much the shaggy-haired pair looked like twins. They did!

    Their turbulent romance soon turned violent, sending Pallenberg into the arms of Richards during a “Jules and Jim”-style threesome holiday in Morocco. She was crazy about Richards, and vice versa. But before becoming the mother of Richards’ three children, she couldn’t resist a little Mick Jagger on the side during the filming of Nicholas Roeg’s sexy thriller, “Performance.” 

    Again, Bloom and Zill are focused on the tabloid aspects of Pallenberg’s life rather than her highly praised acting prowess in “Performance” and another cult classic, “Barbarella,” in which she excelled as the archnemesis of Jane Fonda’s title character. The movie basically paints her as a muse who inspired Richards to compose “Gimme Shelter” while his beloved was under Jagger’s spell, and later, impelled Jagger to write “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” after a then-pregnant Pallenberg refused to dump Richards. 

    From here on out, it’s entirely the Keith and Anita story, with far too much time devoted to rehashing the well-chronicled summer of 1971 spent recording the Stones’ masterwork, “Exile on Main Street,” in Nice under the influence of every narcotic in the book. They even summon actor Jake Weber (“Medium”) to recount how as an 8-year-old he was enlisted to roll joints for the adults when he wasn’t serving as a cocaine mule at Mick and Bianca’s wedding.

    What does that have to do with Pallenberg? Again, Bloom and Zill seem too easily seduced by the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle at the expense of the woman they are allegedly celebrating. It continues when Keith, Anita and their babies, Marlon (named after Brando) and Angela, flee from the French police and touch down in the Swiss Alps for a respite and a chance to become a “normal” family. It works, too, until Keith is called away on the next Stones’ tour. 

    Much is made of the couple’s addictions, but not much is conveyed about how this affected Marlon and Angela, despite the filmmakers having total access to both. They are barely touched upon, as is the crib death of their infant brother, Tara, while their mom, in her words, “was out of it.” That was pretty much the end of Keith and Anita, too. And it might as well be the end of the movie because the nearly three decades that ensued barely rate a mention. 

   Missed are opportunities to venture in-depth into Pallenberg cleaning herself up, returning to modeling and acting, earning a degree and making amends with her surviving children. To minimize such major events is perplexing. Weren’t these seminal moments as key to understanding Pallenberg as her associations with the Stones? 

   It’s telling that neither Richards nor Jagger appear on camera. We do see them in a trove of newsreels and home movies Marlon and Angela unearthed following their mother’s death in 2017. But there are no sit-downs with the longtime songwriting partners. Any insight comes courtesy of what sound like excerpts culled from interviews conducted with Richards and Jagger by other journalists. Same for Jagger’s former girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull. The best parts are passages from Pallenberg’s diaries, as read aloud by Scarlett Johansson. 

    More of that would have been preferable to hearing from folks like Weber or left-field commentaries by Kate Moss, who counts Pallenberg as an inspiration, and Theda Zawaiza, the nanny who was away when 9-year-old Marlon found Pallenberg’s teenaged boy toy, Scott Cantrell, dead in Mom’s bedroom after a game of Russian roulette played while watching “The Deer Hunter.”  

    At the risk of beating a dead horse, I note once again that the film stresses salaciousness over substance. Yet, there’s just enough here to warrant a look, especially if you’re a junkie for ’60s and ’70s pop culture, as well as Rolling Stones lore. What’s here is concise and it zips along despite being nearly two hours in length. But there’s no escaping the feeling that “Catching Fire,” like Pallenberg, could have been so much more. 

Movie review

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg

Rated: Not Rated

Featuring: Marlon Richards, Angela Richards, Volker Schlondorff, Kate Moss, Stash Klossowski, Jake Weber, Theda Zawaiza and Scarlett Johansson

Directors: Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill

Runtime: 112 minutes

Where: In theaters (limited)

Grade: B-

Leave a Reply