Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Maya Hawke, Margaret Qualley, Harley Quinn Smith, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Damon Herriman, Mike Moh, Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, Nicholas Hammond, Kurt Russell, Rumer Willis, Emile Hirsch, Michael Madsen, Zoë Bell, Lena Dunham, Julia Butters, and Bruce Dern
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Rated: 14A for coarse language, tobacco and substance use, and violence
Runtime: 161 minutes
Now playing at Landmark Theatres and Cineplex Odeon cinemas
1969 was a year of some interesting dramatic moments that have had lasting cultural impact: the moon landing, Woodstock, the invention of the Caesar cocktail, Easy Rider, and the Manson Family murders. The great essayist Joan Didion wrote that it was the exact moment that the smooth-riding era of hippies and free love screeched to a burnt-rubber stop. It’s a moment that defined the cultural crossroads for many in America.
Quentin Tarantino was a young child already being raised with a love of movies by that time. He was living in Los Angeles for one thing, and when he wasn’t sitting in the theatre, he was surrounded by television cowboys, stargazers, and the entirety of self-aggrandizing pop culture icons who worshipped at the silver screen.
It was only a matter of time before he would make this movie. Frankly, only he could make Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s a film that is as much true and immersive to the ‘scene’, as it is a historical scrapbook, as it also is what he calls a personal work that takes an inkling of those dramatic moments and revises it to suit his tastes like a love letter to a bygone era.
The lines are blurred between what is real and what isn’t. Tarantino’s gift for creating believability here has fictional characters intermingling with real characters, with real television shows and fake movies, with actual historical events playing out differently in a big ‘what if things were slightly different’ storyline.
An actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) tries to figure out his future after his good guy TV cowboy persona drops out of favour, leaving him to play the heavy on a slow descent to obscurity. His best bud/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is happy to be the hanger-on to his famous friend, being his personal chauffeur and errand runner. Dalton’s neighbour is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who is seeing her star rise with bit parts in notable films of the day.
Strange that there really doesn’t seem to be much more in terms of describing the plot but everything makes sense by the end in a perfect way that this auteur is so good at telegraphing. Somehow the audience doesn’t mind those endless scenes of Booth driving a car with the radio on. We don’t mind two-and-a-half hours of Dalton on set interacting with other players. The clues of what’s to come are somewhere in the languorous dialogue and vividly realized Hollywood of 1969. Tate lives with the wide-eyed optimism of her youth as her star rises while Dalton is older, increasingly bitter, and facing the prospect of adapting or being washed up. Booth resides somewhere in the middle.
Interestingly, this is perhaps the first time that I’ve truly believed DiCaprio in his character. He wore it as easily as a leather jacket.
Once Upon a Time… comes across as a blend between Pulp Fiction and Death Proof with a touch of The Hateful Eight. It simmers slowly to its eventual boiling point where humour and violence collide, and where the dream splits from history. If this isn’t one big 1960s western with a showdown between the good guys and the bad guys then I don’t know what is. It's not perfect – except perhaps in Tarantino's imagination – and an acquired taste for everyone else.