Once Upon A Time In...Holywood: It's epic, exhilarating and wildly entertaining!
This is Quentin Tarantino's penultimate film and it's a kaleidoscope of nostalgia splattered liberally on the screen. Bits are engrossing. Bits are boring. The story is a work of fiction based on reality - if that makes sense but the story, or maybe the editing, is all over the place. Like all of Tarantino’s films, it falls into the Marmite category - some will love it and others will detest it. He does manage to weave a tapestry of tales with fictional, yet believable characters into the world of cinema and TV and place it in real world events.
It's 1969, and hard-drinking, fading cowboy/action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggles with his career, trying to decide whether to continue playing bad guys in TV pilots or go to Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick's longtime stuntman, is now largely unemployable and passes the time driving Rick around and taking care of Rick's home maintenance. Living next door is rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who recently married director Roman Polanski and is enjoying the response to her new movie, The Wrecking Crew. Trouble arises when Cliff picks up a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) and takes her to the Spahn Ranch, where the soon-to-be notorious Manson Family lives. A terrible coincidence brings the members of the Manson Family back to Hollywood. That’s where we leave the story for fear of spoilers, however students of history of 1960’s history will know of the Manson Family and Sharon Tate and the real-life events that occurred.
And that’s really who this film is aimed at. If you know your late 1960’s cultural references, you will love this film. If you know the era of TV serialised Westerns and the development of Spaghetti Westerns, then you will lap this up. And there are so many cultural references: a party in the Playboy Mansion shows us Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass - if you know your music you will recognise them from The Mamas and The Papas. Likewise Steve McQueen. While driving around Los Angeles, Dalton and Booth invariably have legendary LA radio station KHJ playing in the background with those wonderful jingles from Jam Creative Productions (sorry, nerd-DJ alert!). The Bruce Lee scene was funny but Bruce Lee fans will be annoyed.
Tarantino has assembled an amazing pool of talent Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino, along with Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, James Mardsen, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Emile Hirsch, Luke Perry, Scoot McNairy and James Remar. He places them in a world where the tiniest of detail has been thought of. Every scene has been stuffed with memorabilia, products, music, furniture, cars and even wallpaper from the era.
Tarantino returns to Los Angeles as his backdrop for the first time since the Kill Bill movies, and it appears to have recharged his batteries. The film feels excited by the way cinema is imprinted in Hollywood's streets, but also the way its connected/disconnected sprawl offers any number of cool, hidden stories at any given moment. But the roads traveled weave together in complex ways, with real history and fake history crashing up against each other, combining into what can only be cinema. As usual, Tarantino also toys with violence, both imagined and real, both direct and indirect, subverting expectations. At the center, Robbie's Sharon Tate is a little underexplored, but she at least seems sweet and smart. Rick and Cliff, meanwhile, feel like old buddies, with a comfortable shorthand and warmth between them. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are clearly having a great time. Pitt fits the role of laid-back grifter/stuntman so well. There is a clear backstory for him revolving around the death of his wife. He ends up being the good guy of the piece in contrast to DiCaprio whose roles now see him regularly playing the bad guy. DiCaprio is in top form and he creates a believable character who is not sure of his future in Hollywood.
There are so many scenes one could write about, so many fine performances. I suppose that’s ultimately what Tarantino does. He creates these wonderful individual scenes and then weaves them into a story. For sure, it’s better than Hateful Eight. Rumours abound that his tenth and final film will be an R-rated version of Star Trek. I can’t see it happening but if it did, it would be glorious.
Like Marmite, if you don’t get this film, you will be bored. If you do get it and understand the pop-culture references, you will be enthralled and love it.