Mythic tales of Tinseltown have been a staple of movie-making since the advent of the talkies, but few films have been as playful or as daring as Quentin Tarantino firing on all cylinders. And yet his latest offering Once Upon a Time in Hollywood arrives in cinemas needing to dispel some myths of its own, after months of rumour mill and internet buzz suggesting it was the director’s own idiosyncratic interpretation of the Manson Family murders that shocked Hollywood 50 years ago.
There’s a kernel of truth to that buzz, but Once upon a Time in Hollywood is much more than a typically Tarantino-esque retelling of history, and is arguably the most character-driven entry in his CV, a richly woven fabric examining the disposable nature of fame and notoriety. Charles Manson himself (Damon Herriman) appears in only one brief scene, and to all intents and purposes is a bit player in a confidently plotted fictional drama about the shifts and sea changes in the showbiz world at the close of an already turbulent decade.
In some ways, Once upon a Time… sees Tarantino returning to his roots, the action taking place in the Los Angeles of his first three films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), and yet it’s also a period piece like his last three films (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight).
The lion’s share of the narrative follows the three main characters over a single weekend in February 1969; TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds his career on the skids after the cancellation of his western series Bounty Law, and is prone to tears and tantrums as he takes on the lesser role of regular guest villain on other shows, while his equally under-employed stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is reduced to chauffeur-cum-gopher.
Meanwhile, Rick’s new next-door neighbour on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, rising starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), sees nothing but bright things ahead. Scenes of her glowing with optimism as she shops for gifts for husband Roman Polanski and visits a cinema where one of her earlier movies is showing are a stark contrast to booze-soaked Rick’s struggles on a studio lot a few miles away.
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At the same time, Cliff’s menial tasks for his boss bring him into contact with a free-spirited hitch-hiking hippy and a trip out of town to the disused Spahn Movie Ranch, now home to the followers of the charismatic Manson. So far, so good, in terms of melding fact and fiction, but worlds collide to dizzying effect in the film’s final act set six months later.
Inevitably, the period setting gives Tarantino carte blanche to indulge his love of pop culture, although on this particular outing music is used sparingly. Happy-go-lucky Sharon dances at home to the groovy sounds of Paul Revere & the Raiders, Cliff listens to Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show while driving (prefacing the “hot August night” to come), but the most telling selection on the director’s juke box comes near the end…
The Mamas and the Papas’ song Twelve Thirty has always sounded a little off-kilter compared to their bigger, sunnier hits, and it takes on a decidedly sinister tone when accompanying footage of Manson acolytes heading to Cielo Drive (“young girls are coming to the canyon…”).
More prevalent is Tarantino’s boyhood memories of episodic television: Rick and the likes of star-in-the-ascendant James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) vying for the cover of TV Guide with real-life prime-time favourites Mannix, Combat and FBI, while ruing the big-screen opportunities they missed (Dalton was briefly in the running for the Steve McQueen role in The Great Escape) or wary that relatively newfangled spaghetti westerns might be career-killers.
In one almost throwaway comic scene the director slyly winks at his own critics when a Manson girl launches into a theory that violent movies and TV shows taught America how to murder, and there’s also laughs to be had from Al Pacino’s cameo as a pushy agent trying to help Rick escape the rut of bad-guy guest appearances where he more often than not gets killed in the last reel.
As well as Pacino, there are other delicious one-scene contributions from Bruce Dern as the grizzled owner of the Spahn ranch and Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, on screen for no more than two minutes at a Playboy Mansion party, his only purpose is to explain to other guests the curious domestic set-up in the Polanski-Tate household. But all the above amount to little more than window-dressing when held up against the three leads.
Robbie is radiant as Tate, effortlessly conveying via minimal dialogue the joy and promise of her future as an actress on the cusp of the A-list while married to one of the most lauded directors of his generation. Pitt, rugged and handsomely weather-beaten, breezes through his scenes with limitless movie-star cool, alternating between getting-things-done heroism and laconic comic-foil charm (Cliff’s on-set scrap with Bruce Lee is an absolute hoot).
Most impressive, though, is DiCaprio as the idol on the decline, shoring up his shattered confidence with alcohol. A formerly hot ticket, now a vulnerable mess at risk of being entirely consumed by his insecurities, it’s a performance that occasionally jolts funny bones but will more often than not break your heart.
All the above is played out on a canvas that dazzles at every turn, be it the sumptuous crane shots of a Hollywood that has near enough vanished today, the diner and nightclub signs flickering to life at twilight, or the lovingly re-created monochrome of the TV shows where Rick and Cliff clock in to ever diminishing returns. Kudos for the visual splendour has to go to Robert Richardson, Tarantino’s cinematographer of choice since Kill Bill.
However, none of this feast of the eyes would mean much without the subtlety of the performances, the easy rhythms of Tarantino’s script or the innate affection he still holds for a time and a place he called home. Quentin being Quentin, there will be blood (and guts), but this version of Hollywood is built on heart and soul.
Once upon a Time… in Hollywood is released in cinemas on Wednesday 14th August