You can’t always get what you want, unless you are a Rolling Stones fan hungering for documentary deep-dives into the band’s storied history. Indeed, it is spectacularly serendipitous that Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg arrives just a few months after The Stones and Brian Jones. The latter doc, from Nick Broomfield, centered on Jones, the band’s founder and leader until Mick Jagger and Keith Richards snatched that mantle. Catching Fire and The Stones and Brian Jones cover much of the same ground, use some of the same archival footage, and even feature the same anecdotes from delightful Tin Drum director Volker Schlöndorff. (Once you hear his tale of walking in on Keith Richards eating breakfast in Pallenberg’s bed, you never forget it.) The films are even released by the same distributor, Magnolia. 

Catching Fire and Brian Jones should, of course, be judged on their own merits, yet it’s impossible not to consider them in-tandem. The perspectives are obviously quite different, as are––to some degree––heroes and villains. A line in my Stones and Brian Jones review comes to mind: “The incestuous world of Stones’ flings could make for its own documentary, actually.” Broomfield’s film certainly spreads blame for Jones’ various failures and indiscretions among the man himself and fellow Stones. It must also be said that Pallenberg comes off as a rather ghoulish figure in Jones, a bed-hopping agent of chaos. As Catching Fire shows, there are elements of truth there. But Pallenberg––the blonde-haired, Italian-German model, actress, and fashion icon––was far more complex than that. She deserves the fuller picture painted by directors Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill.

Fire opens by sharing an extraordinary find: the late Pallenberg’s unpublished memoir. Her never-before-heard words provide the film’s framing device, adding an air of haunting introspection. Another coup was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Pallenberg’s “voice.” Johansson proved in projects as diverse as Her and The Jungle Book that her breathy tones are among her greatest assets. Bloom and Zill also had access to astonishingly intimate Super 8 home movies provided by Pallenberg’s family. The Stones and Brian Jones (reviewed here) was a fascinating attempt to capture the life and cement the influence of a long-deceased figure whose impact still reverberates. But thanks to the discovery of Pallenberg’s memoir, the voice of Johansson, and the unseen footage, Catching Fire is the stronger entry. 

Needless to say, there is also its subject. As Catching Fire begins, Pallenberg enters the frame with confidence, smoking a cigarette and spinning in a shock-orange cape. “I’ve been called a witch, a slut, and a murderer,” says Johannson. “I’ve been hounded by the police and slandered in the press. Maybe people confuse me with the characters I played in films. Like I’m an empty sign onto which they project their fantasies and their shortcomings. But I don’t need to settle scores. I’m reclaiming my soul.” These words are followed by comments from her son, Marlon––“She had bigger balls than any of them did”––and Keith Richards. “She was a unique piece of work,”  says Keith, putting it mildly. “I’ve never quite figured it all out.”

Over the course of the nearly two-hour film, Bloom and Zill trace Pallenberg’s life from an unloving home to modeling in New York City; meeting the Rolling Stones; falling hard for the temperamental and violent Jones; moving on to the kinder, gentler Richards; having an affair with Jagger on the set of Performance; becoming a parent; descending into addiction; and then, somehow, surviving. It is easy to forget that Pallenberg lived to 75, passing away in 2017. 

By that point, her history with the Rolling Stones was in the distant past. And it is worth noting that while anything involving the Stones is compelling, Catching Fire is most emotionally involving when focusing on Pallenberg away from Brian, Keith, and Mick. After the tragic death of their son Tara, the frayed relationship between Richards and Pallenberg never recovered. Life for Pallenberg became even more grim, culminating in the suicide of a 17-year-old in her home. Then something unexpected happened: Pallenberg turned her life around. This physical and spiritual rebirth is brought to vivid life by Bloom and Zill, two supremely talented filmmakers. With their ingenious use of Pallenberg’s memoir and oodles of footage, they take what could have been just another Stones doc and create a portrait of pulling through at all costs. 

Beyond Pallenberg, one of the film’s most compelling figures is Marlon Richards, who we see develop from a smiling toddler to a witty, sharp-tongued adult with Keith Richards’ cheekbones and haunted eyes. He, more than anyone, was forced to deal with the after-effects of some of the worst moments of his mother’s and father’s lives. But he also watched his mother survive and eventually flourish, and it is only fitting that he was one of the driving forces in the creation of Catching Fire.

Catching Fire is a redemption story and an against-all-odds accounting of one woman’s triumph over misogyny and addiction. More than that, it’s a tale of finding one’s real voice later in life. There are a great many icons of the 1960s––Brian Jones, Mama Cass, Jimi Hendrix––who never had the opportunity to grow old. Considering all she went through, it’s downright shocking that Anita Pallenberg did not join their company. How lucky we are that she found a different fate.

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg opens in theaters and on VOD on May 3.

Grade: B+

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