Review: 'Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg' supplies belated respect for a rock muse

The most epic era of influential rock girlfriends was surely the late 1960s. When viewed from a perspective that kicks off the sexist dust — as done in the propulsive new documentary “Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg” — it becomes possible to think of the Rolling Stones as the ones living in her glamorous orbit of abandon, creativity and style, not the other way around.

An icon in her own right, the German-Italian wild child took everyone on a ride as a fashionista, actor and muse to the world’s hottest band. Pallenberg was arguably both their OG pirate spirit and guide to wider cultural sophistication. But as Keith Richards’ partner and mother to their kids, she found life in the maelstrom impossible to manage. This profile from Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill is a bid to reclaim the valuable heat of Pallenberg’s incandescence, while never shielding viewers from her life’s lasting burn marks.

For the record:

11:19 a.m. May 11, 2024An earlier version of this review said Anita Pallenberg was Keith Richards’ wife. The couple never married.

Bloom and Zill draw their narrative from untapped sources: Pallenberg’s never-published autobiography and a treasure trove of vibrant Super 8 home movies. (Access to both comes from her son, Marlon Richards, also an executive producer and interviewee; Pallenberg died in 2017.) There’s no mistaking “Catching Fire” for image-burnishing hagiography, however. What comes through are highs and valleys seen from the inside, a clarifying memoir from an unsentimental woman who endured being called every shaming name, with powerful grace notes of understanding from a son whose eyes betray a tough childhood. Pallenberg’s own words are read by Scarlett Johansson, albeit — perhaps to avoid undue scrutiny — without Pallenberg’s Mitteleuropa accent.

Pallenberg’s life really is something to behold. From a bohemian lineage of music and art, she drove her rebellious allure straight into the Stones’ ascendancy, conferring on the band a chic clout. She vibed first with shy, insecure founder Brian Jones, who drafted off her model‘s cool and art-scene dazzle until drug-addled sociopathy made him an outcast. Pallenberg then found something deeper with guitarist Richards. Of her anarchic energy, he admits, “She scared me.”

When an affair started with Mick Jagger when filming “Performance,” Richards knew to stay away, retreating to write “Gimme Shelter” to address his jealousy. Later, when Pallenberg stuck with Richards, Jagger returned the feelings with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Muse-ing doesn’t get much more canonical than that one-two shot, on top of the fact that her clothes on Richards’ frame secured him fashion status too.

When she and Richards became junkie parents on the run, flitting from Britain to France to the Swiss Alps, Pallenberg ran up against the limits of freedom as a rock girlfriend and mom. The hardest-to-fathom section of the documentary follows, marked by a pair of tragedies that put the darkest colors on this portrait of reckless, kaleidoscopic adventure. Again, Marlon’s face and measured words are what stay with you, no truer proof that being a rock god and goddess’ son was no lottery won.

A recovering Pallenberg found a measure of late-in-life solace, getting a college degree, becoming a mentor to Kate Moss (also interviewed) and appearing in the occasional offbeat film. It may seem shallow to call her last piece of rebellion refusing to get plastic surgery, but as presented in “Catching Fire,” that’s the sense, whenever her well-lived-and-lined face beams out of the clips from her final decades. There’s nothing smooth or neatly tucked about being a trailblazer.

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