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‘Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg’. A Documentary by Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill

  • June 10, 2024
  • 11 min read
‘Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg’. A Documentary by Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill

When I was a 22 year old Film Student, an associate cast a Punky 16-year-old blonde girl in an ad-libbed uncompleted film called Mark, I told Sara Stockbridge – who later became an ‘exclusive model’ to Vivienne Westood – that she had the very same smile and cheekbones of a young Anita Pallenberg. “Oh? Who’s Anita Pallenberg? she smiled, innocently. Who indeed? “She was everything you want a rockstar to be, or, for me, everything you want a woman to be”, said model Kate Moss, in Catching Fire (2023).

Anita Pallenberg and Rob Houwer during A Degree of Murder, 1967

MEETING A ‘ROLLING STONE’ BRIAN JONES

Anita Pallenberg became the Girlfriend to The Rolling Stones lead guitarist, Brian Jones, in 1965, subsequently becoming friends with Marianne Faithfull, a model-turned-singer, and girlfriend of Mick Jagger. PR Fixer to Rock’s Superstars, Tony King, once described Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull as being, “The right girls for the right guys at the right time”. These highly intelligent, beautiful, insouciant free spirits “had knapsacks on one shoulder, and credit cards in their back pockets. Ready to fly-off anywhere at any time”.

In the1970’s, at the height of The Stones drug binging years, Anita Pallenberg left The Rolling Stones entourage to fly-off, alone, to visit the West Indies for some solace. “Jamaica?” enquired Mick of Keef, “Nah! She went of her own accord!”

But enough of these would-be outtakes from Stella Street … Back to the beginning.

In the early 1960’s Anita Pallenberg began her professional life as a stylish fashion Model, working first in Rome, hanging out with the La Dolce Vita crowd, and then later in New York with the Andy Warhol set. Here she met Rolling Stone Brian Jones backstage at a Stones concert. Soon they would become inseparable.

Fast forward to London, January 2017, after a Prince Charles Cinema screening of Danny Garcia’s documentary ‘Looking For Johnny – The Legend of Johnny Thunders’. Chatting about the film afterwards, my friend Pedro spotted singer Patti Palladin with an iconic figure, wearing a long red suede coat with a broad brimmed matching hat. This woman of ‘style’ was heading directly towards us. I was about to meet Anita Pallenberg, up-close and personal, for the first time.

After some small talk, I bit the bullet and. talked to her about Brian Jones. Given his predilection for beating her, I wondered how the mere mention of his name would be received in 2015. I enquired, “Were those unusual musical instruments that Brian played on early Stones records, his choices, or Andrew Loog Oldham’s? Like the Lute in the song Lady Jane?”

“A Dulcimer”‘ she said, correcting me in her almost mumbled matter-of-fact Germanic tones, adding, “He played it with a Quill. So typically Brian, that. Such things, like that, you know, had to be right. But it was certainly Brian who picked those instruments. It wouldn’t have been Andrew. No”, she said, stoically shaking her head. With that she and Patti wandered off into the fading Soho night.

Within five months, on June 13, 2017, she passed away at the age of 75 from Hepatitis C. Would anyone shine a light on Anita through a posthumous autobiography or a documentary film? It seemed unlikely. Her motto had always been, “Forwards. Forwards. Never Look Back,” and her friend Kate Moss often quoted her saying, “Ever forward, don’t explain, don’t complain.”

Anita had witnessed many celebrity hagiographies and vanity pieces and wanted no part in such trivialities or works of folly.

LOST & FOUND

So it came as some surprise to hear of her son Marlon Richard’s posthumous house clearance discovery. A hidden shoe box filled with interview transcripts of his mother’s life story. After separating from Keef, Anita had given a series of secret New York interviews to The Velvet Underground’s biographer, Victor Bockris, plus the noted New York journalist-turned-guitarist of The Patti Smith Group, Lenny Kaye.

Anita had clearly wanted her life story to be posthumously published. Instead her son Marlon Richards realised that he had the makings of the narrative spine for a unique documentary film. These transcripts are read out in Catching Fire by Scarlett Johansson, acting in-character as Anita Pallenberg.

The film features many reels of previously unseen Super 8mm home movies from trips to Morocco, Peru, France, and Switzerland with members of The Stones, offering fresh insights into well-known events and untold stories. Cleverly augmented with 16mm recreations, these treasured archival discoveries imbue the film with a Scorsese-like spirit, reminiscent of the documentary feature The Kid Stays in the Picture, the story of 1970s Hollywood movie mogul Robert Evans. In The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans narrates the film himself, reading from his audiobook. This ‘author-as-narrator’ technique works wonderfully in Catching Fire and is key to its winning formula.

My only criticism is the choice of Johansson as the narrator. Her faux German accent Americanizes Anita, which seems inappropriate.

THE REAL ANITA?

Tagged by the media in all manner of sexist slurs such as a ‘Slut’, ‘Witch’, ‘Murderer’, this film sets the record straight. Her own Bohemian background of German-Italian parentage traces her lineage back through her German family’s side (bespoke furniture makers based in Cologne, not mentioned in the film) who thread back to the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin and to Fairytale creators The Brothers Grimm. A cool calling card when hanging-out with the likes of Fellini, and Warhol. If she even needed one?

Notching-up seven screen roles between 1967 and 1970, when not hanging out with The Stones, Anita co-starred in four notable ones. Firstly a 1967 German film directed by Volker Schlöndorf, A Degree of Murder, with a soundtrack composed by Anita’s then partner, Brian Jones. Next up Roger Vadim’s celebrated comic book Sci-Fi jaunt, Barbarella, followed by the Terry Southern/Buck Henry authored farce Candy, plus Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s masterpiece Performance. All four are clipped in the documentary, while the latter, Performance, is contextualised in a voiced-over narration by the film’s producer Sandy Leiberson.

By 1968, Anita was then the partner of Keef Richards. This came about after his rescuing her from Brian Jones’ violent assaults in Marrakech in 1967. 1968 saw Anita cast as Pherber In Performance. The on-screen girlfriend to Turner played by Mick Jagger. Intimate scenes in the script led to Keef keeping away, while descending into a long silence. The documentary reveals that Keef would later write Gimme Shelter in Performance’s aftermath, alongside You Got The Silver.

A postscript to this saw Jagger, Faithfull, Pallenberg, and Richards rent rooms on a Trawler Ship, heading for a summer break in Peru. All seen here for the very first time. Not staying long in South America, Faithfull jetted home in anticipation of her split from Jagger, who was, by then, flirting in Peru with an already pregnant Anita (by Keith). The documentary also reveals that Jagger would later write You Can’t Always Get What You Want, about Anita, in the aftermath of this sojourn

THE 1970’s

The early 1970’s saw the Stones becoming tax exiles in the South of France, hiring an infamous Château called Villa Nellcôte on the Côte d’Azur. All in preparation for what would eventually become Exile On Main Street (1972). Anita was, by now, a young mother to her first son Marlon Richards. Fluent in several languages, Anita became the Villa’s entourage manager at a time when Keef descended into serious Heroin addiction. Footage and photos capture the strung-out famous folk. This put a strain upon a pregnant Anita, whose responsibility was compounded when the mother of a young son died at the Villa, causing Anita to become the surrogate parent.

In the aftermath, Keef and Anita took young Marlon for holidays to a rented chalet in Villars-sur-Ollon, a village in the western Swiss Alps. The film is quite revealing in these sequences. Both parents were, by now, habitual drug abusers. Nevertheless, they still went ski-ing with Marlon, while high as kites, managing to make it back to the chalet without breaking bones. A miracle or just selective amnesia?

Pregnant with a daughter later to be named Dandelion Angela, Anita’s baby was born on 7th April 1972 in Villars, Switzerland. This was witnessed by the boy Marlon, and caught on film. Anita then gave birth to her second son Tara Jo in March 1976 in London. Tara tragically died in a ‘SIDS’ cot death scenario in London on June 6th, 1976. When Keef found out, while on tour, he opted not to cancel his concert at The Pavillon de Paris (Les Abattoirs) scheduled for a Live TV transmission to the UK. This went ahead as scheduled.

It was at this juncture Richards’ mother stepped-in and took Angela away to live with her, bringing her up in Dartford, Kent. Just far enough away from Anita and Keef in London. Meanwhile, Marlon would ‘tour on the road’ with The Stones or stay with Anita. Angela goes some of the way to explaining this story on camera. It is at this point that we realise ‘why’ she now has a very different accent to that of her brother Marlon.

Moving to a quiet part of New York State in the mid-1970’s, Anita and Keef stayed in Salem. Anita often lived there in solitude with Marlon, while Keef went on tour with The Stones. Anita was almost imprisoned there under the control of The Rolling Stones’ record label, who held onto her passport in Manhattan. Possibly at the request of Keef or The Rolling Stones management? This is never fully explained in the film. Although it may have anticipated what happened next?

TRAGEDY

Tragedy struck again on 20th July, 1979, when a 17-year-old boy, Scott Cantrell, who was employed as a Gardener at Anita & Keef’s South Salem home, decided to emulate the Russian Roulette scene in the film, The Deer Hunter. This happened in the bedroom of Keef and Anita, while playing with Keef’s loaded gun. Cantrel spun the barrel and blew his brains out all over Anita. Keef was overseas In Paris recording with The Stones at the time, but a young Marlon witnessed the aftermath. Salem’s Police Department arrested Anita, and placed her on a murder charge. A year later a court ruled that the death was ‘suicide’. Shortly after this Keef officially ended his relationship with Anita.

NEW BEGINNINGS

By 1987 Anita had ended her relationship with both heroin and alcohol. This lasted for the best part of 20 years. Prior to this she married one Daniel Roux in 1982. This is not mentioned in the film. The man remains a mystery to this very day as do many of Anita’s post Stones liaisons. One annotated fact is a truly positive one. Anita took back control of her life, studying Textiles & Fashion at Central St Martins Art College in London’s Charing Cross Road, graduating in 1994. Marlon Richards then introduced his mother to the supermodel Kate Moss, who became a close friend and confidant. This indirectly led to Anita working at Marc Jacobs fashions. Although that tale is not told in the film either. At that juncture Anita would have been in her early fifties, but as Marlon says, “She felt like she was in her thirties”. Her life had come full circle – from being a supermodel to designing clothes for supermodels.

Whatever one might say about Anita Pallenberg in the pejorative sense? We should realise that her unique spirit shined on throughout her life – even in the darkest of times when her mind was afflicted with various addiction disorders.

IN CONCLUSION

I’d recommend Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill’s film, but with a certain amount of reservation. Major omissions? The lack of on screen dates, movie title captions, and place names, Catching Fire is at best a narrated montage, albeit a chronological one. The uninitiated might need to actually read an informed time-framed review piece (like this) to fully gauge the contextualized backstories, which are often selective and sketchy.

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg is currently screening at Curzons and in London’s best Independent Cinemas.

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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