Quentin Tarantino’s gloriously fun alt-history of ‘60s Hollywood puts truth in a bong and smokes it.
The sort of high-wire, playful and madly enjoyable riff on film-world folklore that only Quentin Tarantino could get away with, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a massively fun shaggy-dog story that blends fact and fiction by inserting made-up characters at the heart of real, horrible events and then daring history to do its worst. It’s also a glorious love letter to Los Angeles and the movies. It sits at the mature end of Tarantino’s work, bringing his tongue-in-cheek storytelling together with exquisite craft and killer lead performances from Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. And yet, it’s still very much a Tarantino film, trading in genuine emotion one minute, unapolegetically silly the next.
Tarantino takes Hollywood in the era of the Charles Manson murders—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 actual murders. That means you’re spending almost the whole movie wondering how this director is going to deal with those terrible real events. For the answer to 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: the doomed Tate (Margot Robbie), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), the Manson gang (one of which is played by Lena Dunham). 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 Cliff Booth, his stuntman, his driver and his friend. Booth is a good man with a dark side and he’s unafraid to challenge Bruce Lee to a fight when they're hanging around a studio lot.
The co-stars 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 Leone-esque survivors (that title is not accidental), leaving us to consider the changes that are about to come.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is full of nods to Tarantino’s earlier films: the counter-factual ultraviolence of Inglourious Basterds; the love of Westerns via both Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight; even the celebration of stunt artists in his short film Death Proof from Grindhouse. Entire sections of the film slip into movie-TV pastiche, and Tarantino indulges period details right down to the ads on the radio. There are endless asides, including a touching one where Tate goes to the movies alone to see herself alongside Lee Marvin in The Wrecking Crew.
Entire sections have a stand-alone confidence, such as when Pitt’s Cliff turns up at the Spahn Ranch, the adopted home of the Manson Family. He ends up there because he randomly picks up a hitchhiker (Fosse/Verdon’s Margaret Qualley; 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 a voiceover and then drops it because…well, just because.
That’s the mood of the film: gleefully all over the place, just like our two main characters cruising through the city, and yet, totally together and meaningful. Tarantino evokes a time of seismic change in a style that’s totally his own, leaving us to sift out the (entirely irresistible) aftermath.
Cast and crew
We've found 84 movie theaters showing 'Once Upon a Time In Hollywood'