Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg review – rockn’roll ‘muse’ in the spotlight

Anita Pallenberg endured many things, including the condescension of being labelled “muse” to the Rolling Stones. She became the girlfriend of Brian Jones who abused her, married Keith Richards who neglected her and then co-starred in the movie Performance with Mick Jagger, who fell unrequitedly in love with her. Now this documentary tells Pallenberg’s strange, sad, melodramatic story, with Scarlett Johansson voicing Pallenberg’s memories from her unpublished autobiography entitled Black Magic, discovered in manuscript after her death in 2017.

Born to a wealthy, cultured German family in Rome, Pallenberg did a bit of modelling and was then discovered by director Volker Schlöndorff. After she played a few minor movie roles, including opposite Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Pallenberg was cast in another role by the Rolling Stones: the exciting but pointless real-life part of uber rock chick, putting her at the very centre of the 60s rock’n’roll scene but also weirdly peripheral to it. In the strangest way, she behaved as a kind of cipher for the Stones’ competitive sexual relationships with each other. She was considered ephemeral, disposable – and, indeed, heartlessly disposed of; she was pressured by Richards into giving up her work acting and modelling, exhausted by abuse, drugs and depression, and often left on her own while the Stones went off on their neverending money-machine tours.

This film in fact contains some of the most chilling footage to be seen in any documentary: Richards playing live in Paris having just been told that their baby son Tara had died of cot death syndrome , but determined that the show should go on. Pallenberg was devastated, but Richards’ mother Doris claimed Anita was an unfit parent and it was decided their daughter would live in England with her grandmother, while their son Marlon stayed in the US at the family home in upstate New York from which Keith was so often absent.

Tara’s death may not have been Pallenberg’s fault, but the same can’t necessarily be said of the death of a local 17-year-old called Scott Cantrell who hung out at Anita and Keith’s Long Island house; he shot himself in the head there while emulating the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter. This documentary tells us Anita defiantly declared that she regretted nothing. (But some viewers might ask: what about Scott?)

Near the end of her life, Pallenberg was hailed as an icon by Kate Moss who based her own look on Pallenberg’s 60s style. Maybe Pallenberg could have made it in acting but the lure of mega-celebrity was too enticing … though in this film, nothing about mega-celebrity looks fun.

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg is in UK and Irish cinemas from 17 May.

The Guardian