Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg

by admin  3rd May 2024 Comments [0]

By Harvey Kubernik


Catching Fire – The Story of Anita Pallenberg, debuts in New York as a sneak preview at 7:30 pm at IFC Center on Thursday, May 3, 2024 and may open at more theaters at a later date, and on VOD.

This fascinating documentary comes from Magnolia Pictures. It’s directed by Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill, with the words of Anita Pallenberg read by Scarlett Johansson from Pallenberg’s unpublished memoir. It was an Official Selection 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Catching Fire is about a woman who was at many points in her life a newspaper headline: Anita Pallenberg was a “rock n’ roll goddess,” a “voodoo priestess,” and an “evil seductress.” She was accused of trying to break up the Rolling Stones, among other things. But those who loved her considered her an exciting cultural force, and a loving mother – and innocent of the accusations. Never-seen-before home movies and family photographs explore life with the Rolling Stones and tell a bittersweet tale of both triumph and heartbreak. From Barbarella to the Swiss Alps, and the Lower East Side to London, Anita Pallenberg was a creative force ahead of her time.

Media materials provided include the Director’s Statement which further describes this captivating movie.

Catching Fire is a truly hand-made film by two directors motivated by the desire to create something lasting, and personal. It’s a film about family, made by family: Alexis and Svetlana were brought the idea in 2020 by Marlon Richards, the son of Anita Pallenberg and Keith Richards, who wanted his mother’s story to be told in all its complexity. The directors have worked closely with Anita’s inner circle over the course of three years, and the result is a private view of a life that was often lived in public. The Super 8mm home movies woven throughout the documentary are the purest expression of this intimacy.

Catching Fire is very much an expression of the honesty and love in Anita’s family, but it’s no hagiography. Anita was famous for her biting sense of humor and her contempt of false praise. This film bucks the trend of “branded content” and “celebrity bios” by embracing both the bitter and the sweet, the heartbreak as well as the triumph. Anita Pallenberg is a true anti-hero, an antidote to corporate messaging. The directors approached the film as an act of historical reclamation: putting the female perspective back in the official narrative of rock ‘n’ roll, making Anita visible again.

“For Alexis and Svetlana, Catching Fire was a deliberate recalibrating of history, and a celebration of an unapologetic leader. Anita was doubtless a muse to many, and she continues to be an inspiration to the directors. In the words of one of Anita’s grandchildren: ‘Anita was the original gangster; she was ‘girl power’ to the end.’ Alexis and Svetlana developed the film with the conviction that something this personal can become universal. Anita struggled to balance her own professional life with the needs of her partner, motherhood with a desire for freedom – her themes are absolutely contemporary. The directors hope that Anita’s humor – and theirs – shine through a story that’s unsparing at times. Anita took risks, and so did e directors: this is an immersive documentary with a style and rhythm all of its own.”

The documentary is enhanced by a deep archive of rare, unseen photos and home videos. This film truly reveals Pallenberg’s many facets and assets.

It’s very obvious Keith Richards still harbors tender feelings for Pallenberg, and in one reflection summarizes her, “She was a unique piece of work.”

In Catching Fire, Anita finally has a forum to define herself. As she says in her memoir, “Writing this has helped me emerge in my own eyes.”

The cast includes Prince Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Kate Moss, Angela Richards, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, and Marlon Richards.

In April, I saw an advance screening of Catching Fire with photographer and music journalist Heather Harris. She reinforced to me again that Pallenberg surpassed her gorgeous European fashion model classification “by seeming to be, to all who encountered her, one of the most reckless extroverts to ever stride the planet.”

Heather emailed me about Catching Fire.

“Her great-grandfather painted one of the most famous, genuine Goth paintings of all time, ‘Isle of the Dead,’ 1880, oil on canvas by Arnold Bocklin, a work of immeasurable dread as a coffin-laden hearse-barge is rowed, lapping on a lake in the dark of night, towards its ominous namesake.

“But Anita Pallenberg attained notoriety for a far different fate, first as the major non-audio influencer of the nascent Rolling Stones, then as an almost worst-case scenario victim of, then survivor of that band’s most notorious excesses. Younger music fans of Classic Rock are said to lack context in which to fathom the import of what they’re hearing. Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg is a newly released documentary that treads a long ways to rectify that.

“Make no mistake, Pallenberg’s absence in the band history would have begat a far different Rolling Stones. No matter how superior the music is in and of itself, do not underestimate the importance of strong visuals in modern popular music. We have five senses, and they all work together. And she plugged her own volcanic life force directly into the Stones at just the right minute of the 1960s, which indeed helped codify The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

“She insured they looked different from their frenemies and fellow tastemakers/leaders of all pop culture the Beatles during the style turbulence of the ’60s.

“As rock and roll couturier Evita Corby noted (not in the film) ‘Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg constantly looked like they all wore one another’s clothes,’ which indeed they did, ‘And that they just threw their favorite garments together daily, with zero regard to a matched, put together look’ unlike everyone else in the music biz, fashion biz or even the avant-garde. The resultant mode was Unisex in exotic textiles reflecting worldwide travels alongside cherry-picked exemplars from Granny Takes A Trip appropriated idiosyncratically to their own custom tailors via Pallenberg’s personal, outsider taste.

“The doc traces her complexity far beyond her libertine persona familiar to music fans from her years with Keith Richards (and Brian Jones.) Her maternal side is well presented by the movie’s producer, her erudite son Marlon Richards, and one of the two Weber brothers who lived when youngsters with Keith and Anita in their Nellcote villa in the south of France, invited to do so when their mother committed suicide and their father had understandable trouble coping.

“Directors Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill chose the classical music also used in the film Barry Lyndon to subtly underscore the tragedies in her later life, some of, some not of her own decision-making, often clouded by the extreme distraction of taking narcotics. The fabled sexiness speaks for itself in clips of her leading roles in the films Performance, Barbarella and A Degree of Murder.

“People who encountered her briefly invariably called this beautiful woman ‘scary.’ Folks who knew her better called her ‘intelligent, and a tough cookie.’ The slow, deliberate narration by her friends avoids any tempting cliche of having jumpy-cut style or cinematography to match the ‘wildness’ of the ’60s, thankfully. But there is the puzzling choice of having my fellow American Scarlett Johansson voicing Pallenberg’s own written words. Pallenberg’s own vocals were a mashup of Marlene Dietrich’s smoky sophistication and Joan Greenwood’s seductive purr. (Greenwood in fact was her dubbed voice as the Great Tyrant in Barbarella. Same tone and timbre, but just by the then entertainment world’s sexiest plummy voice.) It is jarring, but doesn’t inhibit enjoyment of the film. And the home movies footage throughout the documentary is nothing short of incredible.”

In 1965 it was my brother, Kenneth Kubernik, an author and musician, who showed me a photo of Anita Pallenberg in a magazine.

During 2024 he viewed a screener of Catching Fire and emailed me his response to this stunning cinematic portrait of Anita.

“Those twilight feline eyes; a mouth set to snarl, not purr; legs built to stalk, ever conscious of a prey drive that bordered on ravenous. Anita Pallenberg was built from exotic animal parts, as rarefied as a snow leopard and just as agile, just as willful. She didn’t arrive on the scene so much as blow up the entire toxic patriarchy that defined the British rock aristocracy of the deathless ’60s. Brian, Keith, Mick and all of their pimply devotees became bewitched by her palpable allure. At that time London was choc-a-bloc with Dolly birds sashaying along Kings Road in their Mary Quant minis and their white Courrèges boots. Along comes Anita, resplendent in Berber batik, a splash of Bosch and the hauteur of a Barbary coast buccaneer. It wasn’t Keith who Depp was copping in those silly films; it was Anita who cast that piratical spell. Her life was a series of escapades and escapes, a survivor of the vicious misogyny that drove the music culture of her time like a runaway train. Wild horses couldn’t drag her away.

“The hotly-anticipated documentary of her tempestuous life exceeds all expectations. The discovery of an unpublished memoir provides a vital narrative backbone (her words read by Scarlett Johansson in her distinctive single malt voice) that delivers just enough self-reflection to suggest we’re finally getting close to this mythic creature who never stopped tantalizing both men and women with her singular style. The footage is gob-smacking; Stones fans will lap up every bit of heretofore unseen Super 8 footage that only confirms what our febrile imaginations have been concocting all these years. All the touchstones are checked: Anita’s youthful caprice in NYC, meeting Brian in Munich, Courtfield Road, red carpet at Cannes, the madness in Morocco, VilleFranche, the Swiss Alps and on and on. How she persevered through the insanity of those times reminds all of us that even our most fervid projections on our heroes and heroines come at an often ruinous cost to them.

“Three ABKCO era Stones tracks were licensed for the soundtrack, the rest a pastiche of bluesy British punch-ins. That’s enough – we’re all better off with just a taste.

“Marianne Faithfull, a unicorn in her own right, said tellingly about her: “I often used to think that if one spent the evening with Anita, one could very easily get killed.” There are worse ways to exit this mortal coil.”