POSSIBLE SPOILERS THROUGH IMPLICATION(4.5 / 5)
Quentin Tarantino has, perhaps, the most iconic voice in all of modern cinema – literally so.
His dialogue is slangy and irreverent, immediately quotable; loaded with pop culture references and yet oddly timeless for it. Part of that is Tarantino’s range of influences: Pulp Fiction, for instance, borrows from both the Golden Age of Hollywood – as with the briefcase inspired by Kiss Me Deadly – and the French New Wave, Mia’s “comfortable silences” bit being directly lifted wholesale from Vivre Sa Vie.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino crafts a paean to Los Angeles during the transition from the old world to the new.
1969: the counterculture is booming – coltish chicks in tie-dye and short shorts hitching rides out on the Strip – but the old guard are still making a living on the backlot. One such relic is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV cowboy, former star of Bounty Law, who never quite got his break in movies. Now reduced to playing smirking villains on episodes of the likes of The FBI, getting punched out by the up-and-coming lead, his agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) wants him to get into Spaghetti Westerns.
If Rick is washed up, his loyal companion and valet Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, effortlessly Zen and laconic) was never off the shore to begin with. A stuntman who lives in a trailer by a drive-in cinema, with his pit bull Brandy and a collection of comics, he’s an archetypal adolescent fantasy.
Rick’s new neighbour on Cielo Drive is a fantasy of a different type: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who’s spending her days dancing, either in her living room or at poolside parties to the Playboy Mansion, and taking trips to the cinema. Someone who’s not up on their history of Hollywood scandal and atrocity might wonder exactly how all this made the cut.
OUATIH is balanced between its depiction of the last, seemingly endless summer of the 1960s – though it takes place over the course of a year, this being L.A. the sun is alway out – and the lurking threat of the Manson Family, whose violent murder ofTate and her house guests – Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin), and Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) – is widely considered the end of the hippie era.
The film’s tension stems the Manson Family’s presence on the peripheries of the story – the ticking clock of the calendar subtitle; the coltish, tie-dyed figure of Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), ever trying to hitch a ride back to the ranch. Manson himself is wisely limited to a cameo (Damon Herriman, shortly to reprising the role in season two of Mindhunter.)
This is, more than any of Tarantino’s other films, a study of time, place, and character, and, of course, the movie business. DiCaprio brings an engaging seediness and desperation to Rick, a contemporary of Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen who’s only now realising his Great Escape isn’t coming; a fact that’s underlined in an amusing use of digital insertion.
However, OUATIH never disparage Rick’s talent; rather suggesting that, while years of undemanding bit parts might have dulled his edge, he has depths if only he’d bother to dig. All he needs is the right motivation.
Such is the fidelity of these clips – or indeed whole scenes – with which Tarantino presents us, his knowledge and his playfulness, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that Lancer, the show on which Rick guests, is real, as are its star James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) AKA Johnny Madrid and Wayne Maunder (the late Luke Perry). Other celebrities are more obvious: Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), McQueen (Damian Lewis), and of course Sharon Tate, whom the film presents as a figure of radiance passing through the world.
Hollywood, to fall back on cliché – and when has Hollywood been afraid to do that – is a character in itself. You can certainly see where the $100 million budget went: between the cast and the seamless recreation of the wider city, from the main drag to the outer limits. This is the L.A. through which Elliott Gould’s Marlowe shambolically wandered, or in more recent years Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello; though here neither hazy nor washed-out, but shot with glorious crispness by Ralph Richardson.
Lots of time is spent speeding around the city in classic cars while a typically too-cool selection of deep cuts plays on the radio. Even with its two-and-a half hour plus runtime, OUATIH is packed with music – the soundtrack runs to thirty tracks, from Paul Revere and The Raiders to Jose Feliciano, via the occasional root beer or tanning lotion ad.
Tarantino even uses music here as more than a stylish mood setter: for instance, reinforcing the passage of time by cutting from one track to another as we cruise along Hollywood Boulevard. There’s even, removed from the flow of character a story, a brief, simple montage of neon signage snapping on with a sizzle that shows a real wistfulness and maturity.
Of all Tarantino’s films, OUATIH is perhaps the closest to Inglourious Basterds. The climax is closer still to something by S. Craig Zahler. While certainly entertaining, the abrupt tonal shift, however intentional, feels like a, perhaps unavoidable, bum note before grace.
Ultimately, though, this a sentimental tale about the town Tarantino loves in a time when he was too young to really know. Despite its heavy metatextuality, this might be the least self-conscious of all Tarantino’s nine films – to use his own self-serving numbering. Steeped in nostalgia, there’s a note to proceedings you might not recognise from Tarantino’s earlier work: nostalgia, but one tempered with an appreciation of the limits of homage without innovation (this is no Hail, Caesar!).
For a director who at the age of fifty-six still holds the reputation of cinephile wunderkind, or perhaps enfant terrible, it’s a welcome, even touching note.
Why choose between flamethrowers and feeling when you can have both?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood arrives in UK cinemas on August 14th.