‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is the sort of high-wire, playful and madly enjoyable riff on movie-world folklore that only Quentin Tarantino could make and get away with. It’s a massively fun LA shaggy-dog story that blends fact and fiction by inserting made-up characters right at the heart of real, horrible events and then daring history to do its worst. It’s also a glorious love letter to LA and the movies. It sits right at the mature end of Tarantino’s work, bringing his tongue-in-cheek storytelling together with exquisite movie craft and killer lead performances from Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s mature – but it’s still very much a Tarantino film; it trades in genuine emotion one minute and is gloriously silly the next.
It puts truth in a bong and smokes it. Tarantino takes Hollywood in the era of the Charles Manson murders, and specifically the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends in August 1969, and retells the story on his own terms, first over a few days in February 1969 and then six months later over the weekend of the real murders in August the same year. That means of course that you’re spending almost the whole movie wondering how he’s going to deal with those terrible real events – and for that you’ll just have to see it. Let’s just say this: Tarantino somehow manages to carve good taste out of bad.
Real-life characters pop up throughout – Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Lena Dunham as one of the Manson gang, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. But at the heart of the movie is a friendship that’s pure fiction: Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an overly emotional, hard-drinking TV actor who fears his time might be over; while Brad Pitt is his stuntman, his driver and his friend Cliff Booth. He’s a good man with a dark side and he’s unafraid to challenge Bruce Lee to a fight when hanging about a studio lot. These actors are excellent together; it’s hard not to think back to the energy of the previous best pairing in a Tarantino film, John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in ‘Pulp Fiction’. The Manson murders are often held up as the end of one era and the beginning of another, and these two characters feel designed to lead us across the threshold into another time; Tarantino has the future whispering in the ears of these two old-school characters, leaving us to consider the changes that are about to come.
It’s full of nods to Tarantino’s earlier films: the buddy romance of ‘Pulp Fiction’; the counter-factual ultra-violence of ‘Inglourious Basterds’; the love of westerns of both ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘The Hateful Eight’; even the celebration of stunt artists in ‘Death Proof’. Entire sections of the film slip into movie or TV-show pastiche, and Tarantino indulges period detail right down to the adverts on the radio as his characters drive about LA. There are endless sideshows, including a touching chapter where Tate goes to see herself alongside Lee Marvin in ‘The Wrecking Crew’ in an LA cinema.
Entire sections have a standalone confidence of their own, such as when Pitt’s character Cliff turns up at the Spahn Ranch, the home of the Manson Family. He ends up there because he picks up a hitchhiker in his car who he fancies (prepare yourself for an abundance of feet in this scene). It’s storytelling bravado like this that holds the whole thing together. Tarantino even gives one section in the middle of the movie a voiceover and then drops it soon after because… well, just because.
That’s the mood of the film: gleefully all over the place, like the two main characters darting all over the city, and yet totally together and, somehow, meaningful too. We’re left to consider how Tarantino filters this time of seismic change down to us in a style that’s totally his own and entirely irresistible.
Review by Dave Calhoun