Were it not for a chance encounter with the Rolling Stones in 1965, we might remember Anita Pallenberg as an exceptional actress and stunning model. Instead, her life was to be defined largely in relation to her ties with the “greatest rock n’ roll band in the world.”
In the documentary Anita, which premiered earlier this week at the Cannes Film Festival, the radiant and compelling Pallenberg finally gets her due as a creative force in her own right, a woman of alluring beauty, intelligence, dysfunction, addiction, and yes, an important figure in the world of the Stones at their apex.
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Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill directed the documentary, which begins with grainy archive of a gorgeous Pallenberg outdoors in a park-like setting, caped in orange and swirling for the camera as she takes a drag from a cigarette. In voiceover she says, “I’ve been called a witch, a slut and a murderer. I’ve been hounded by the police and slandered by the press.” How’s that for an introduction?
The words come from an unpublished memoir Pallenberg wrote before her death in 2017, the narration voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Anita recounts her early years in Rome and education in Germany, born to an artistic but paradoxically straitlaced family. She rebelled. At age 19 Pallenberg headed off to New York, knowing very little English, she recalls. A black and white still photo of her on the boat to America shows her from a distance; even from afar she pops – her dazzling smile snares the attention.
After no time in New York she was “washing Jasper Johns’ paint brushes,” she says, and began to hang out with the Factory crowd of Andy Warhol and associates. Her Scandinavian look and callipygian form gained her immediate entrée to modeling, at which she excelled, though she says she hated it.
On a visit to Munich in ‘65, she attended a raucous Rolling Stones concert and fell in with founding band member Brian Jones. They quickly became a couple, bonding over a shared enthusiasm for drugs, among other things. Everyone found her intriguing, Keith Richards recalls in a new audio interview recorded for the film. Eventually, Anita rolled from one Stone to another, forming a deep romantic attachment with Richards who describes himself as “bursting in love” with her.
She possessed a joie de vivre, a vitality and frankness that appears to have captivated those around her, including budding filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, who discovered her sparkling quality carried over to celluloid. He cast her in A Degree of Murder in 1967 and a year later director Roger Vadim put her in a major role in Barbarella opposite Vadim’s young wife, Jane Fonda. Although Pallenberg’s voice was dubbed (presumably owing to her accented English), she more than held her own with the future two-time Oscar winner. She seems more effortlessly in character as The Great Tyrant than Fonda as Barbarella.
Pallenberg notes her growing fame but says she understood it was nothing next to the frenetic worldwide attention attracted by the Rolling Stones. The two worlds intersected when Mick Jagger took on his first major acting role, playing a rock star in Performance, which co-starred Pallenberg. The two spent decades denying they hooked up at the time, but in her memoir she comes clean, saying they did indeed engage in a casual affair while she was then partnered with Richards, and that Richards knew about it. A mutual friend says that Jagger fell in love with her, but she writes in her memoir, “The funny thing is, I never really fancied Mick at all.”
Crushed by the one-sided attraction, the film says Jagger was inspired to write “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Similarly, Keith’s tortured romantic and possessive feelings for Pallenberg inspired him to write “Gimme Shelter.” (For those keeping score of Stones-Pallenberg connections, Anita also contributed some background vocals to “Sympathy for the Devil.”).
Much of the documentary is devoted to Anita’s lengthy if troubled relationship with Richards, which lasted from roughly 1967-1980. They had three kids together, including Marlon, Angela and Tara – a boy who died at only two months old of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Marlon and Angela appear in the film (Marlon is an EP), describing a chaotic childhood as dad left for work (meaning, touring around the world) and mom battled addiction to heroin, among other substances. Anita herself says, “I wanted to be a good mother, but it didn’t work.”
There’s a poignancy in how matter-of-fact and even forgiving Marlon and Angela are regarding their upbringing (in the midst of the family chaos, Marlon went off to live in France with Keith, and Angela was raised in England by her grandmother, Keith’s mom). Marlon recalls the lifestyle as “shambolic,” and says in one three-year stretch they moved house 20 times. It’s a disturbing story of perhaps unintentional neglect, the kind oft-told by the offspring of rock stars.
Anita benefits from a surprisingly rich archive. Way more footage of Pallenberg exists than one might have thought possible, even from times when she was living in rural areas of Switzerland or upstate New York while Richards toured. Scarlett Johansson wisely avoids trying to imitate Pallenberg’s accent, which would have been distracting. It’s a bravura voiceover, a real acting performance (on par with her work in Her) and it draws us deeply into Anita’s point of view on heady and tumultuous times.
The revelation is Anita’s well-written autobiography, which if published would pair well with Keith Richards’ extraordinary Life. The excerpts leave no doubt about how strong and spirited a woman she was (son Marlon says in the film, alluding to the Stones, “She had bigger balls than any of them did, probably, in a lot of ways.”). Richards, too, seems still to harbor tender feelings for her, all these years later, noting warmly, “She was a unique piece of work.”
As for herself, Pallenberg says in her memoirs, “Writing this has helped me emerge in my own eyes.”
The documentary allows Anita to emerge in our eyes as well, perhaps not fully out of the shadow of the Stones – that isn’t possible – but in enough light for her to shine.
Festival: Cannes (Cannes Classics section)
Director: Alexis Bloom, Svetlana Zill
Cast: Scarlett Johansson (voice of Anita Pallenberg)
Running time: 110 min.
Sales: Cinetic Media
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