‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ (2019)

❉ Tarantino has called this his most personal film and it’s easy to see why, writes Daniel Marner.

“Young girls are coming to the canyon
And in the mornings I can see them walking”-
– The Mamas and Papas, Twelve Thirty

“We are what you have made us, we were brought up on your TV. We were brought up watching Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel”. –
– Nancy Pitman, member of The Manson Family

‘I belong to L.A.
Can’t go wrong in L.A.
I belong to L.A.
Gonna stay in L.A.’
– Jackie DeShannon, L.A.

“My whole life has been decided by fate. I’ve never planned anything that’s happened to me” -Sharon Tate


Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Or rather nostalgia is a living thing, mutating, growing and receding like shrubbery with the seasons. The things people get weepy with longing over nowadays were considered to be ugly, inconsequential knick-knacks in their heyday: cassettes, pocket calculators, Teasmaids and mobile phones the size of small dogs all have their cultists now, even though they have each been superseded by something far more efficient or just abandoned as eccentric ideas whose time came and went. But while it’s true an Mp3 is unlikely to unravel in your tape recorder and clog up the works, it’s also missing a certain tactility and presence: the satisfying *CLICK* of a switch being thrown, the anticipatory hiss of the leader as it cues up Track One, Side One.

Quentin Tarantino is someone who understands tactility and presence, and in many ways his films all share a yearning quality for a world we all think may be just outside our peripheral vision: a colourful, dangerous, exciting, stimulating, endlessly chatty world where everyone is an expert on something obscure and is happy to expound at length on its minutiae. Usually before blowing your brains out or crashing your car. Over his career he’s built up an alternate cinematic universe every bit as fantastic as the MCU, but whose remove from our own world is so slight you barely notice the almost science-fictional implications.

When he announced he was going to be making a film about the horrific massacre that fell upon the inhabitants of 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles 50 years ago this month, social media had a meltdown as only it can. How DARE this blethering middle-aged geek-baby who learned everything he knows from comic books and kung fu movies take on a subject as horrible, as tragic, as REAL as the sickening slaughter of Sharon Tate and her three friends at the hands of a bunch of brainwashed adolescents in the summer of ’69?

A couple of years later he has delivered Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, an overstuffed sprawl of a movie in which the house with the most infamous address in pop culture looms large, but almost always in the background. This film is less interested in the notorious tragedy all its compasses ultimately point to than it is in the wider city and culture the madness of it was fomented in.

Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a major character in the film, but not the lead or the focus: she drifts through LA’s glistening spaces bathed in Robert Richardson’s patented soul glow like the film’s conscience, or its muse. The film’s REAL heroes live next door to her, and it’s their slightly grubbier, less honey-coloured odyssey we’re mainly concerned with. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is making a good living playing heavies in various TV dramas now that his film career has fizzled out some and there’s no hope of getting the hit TV show he quit back again. His best friend, stunt double and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, definitely not looking like anyone’s idea of a 55-year-old man) waits around him for the occasional stunt gig, but mostly drives him around, house-sits, fixes his TV aerial and listens to him bitch about his ‘has-been’ life with a pragmatic dose of tough love (“Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”). Rick has been offered a chance to go to Italy to make spaghetti westerns by a smooth old agent (Al Pacino) and Cliff, whose real home is a trailer next to a drive-in movie palace and who relies on Rick to get him the stunt work he thrives on, notes this is not THAT bad a problem to have.

These are just the bare bones of the plot, but story-wise there’s not much else to it. Once our three main protagonists are introduced, the film winds them up and sends them on their respective ways. Rick films his role as a droop-moustached baddie in a TV western. Cliff reminisces about a seriously awkward encounter on the set of The Green Hornet with pre-superstardom Bruce Lee (an eerily accurate and witty turn by Mike Moh) and picks up a skinny, hippie hitchhiker (Margeret Qualley) who then introduces him to her buddies at a certain ramshackle movie ranch. Sharon parties at the Playboy Mansion with Mama Cass, buys a book for her genius film director husband (Tess of The D’Urbervilles, of course) and goes to a movie theatre to see herself alongside Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew. But if you’ve ever seen a Tarantino movie before, you know that the many, many pleasures on offer here can’t be replicated by simply describing the plot, such as it is.

There is a fourth protagonist in this film, and it isn’t the insane, bearded hippie-cult leader you might be expecting. Latterday Manson cultists and those coming to see a hateful hagiography of Charlie as some sort of sinister Antichrist are both liable to feel deflated at his one, fairly inconsequential scene (“Who’s THIS shaggy asshole?”). Fortunately the vulpine Damon Herriman will get another, meatier turn as Manson later this year in Season 2 of Mindhunter.

No, the fourth most important character in this crumpled, coffee-stained fairytale is Los Angeles itself. Tarantino has declared the film a love letter to the city he grew up in, and Hollywood the place and Hollywood the state of mind have never been so inextricable from one another on screen. Not a moment of screen time passes without some aspect of the vast entertainment industry we’re at the heart of assaulting our senses: Tarantino remembers growing up in a late-60s world where every waking moment was soundtracked by a TV or a radio or a record player, and instead of people switching these things off or turning them down to converse people just raised their voices to be heard over them. Not since Walter Murch’s extraordinary, endless, echoing sound collages in American Graffiti has a cast of characters been so buffeted, battered, blanketed and buoyed up by advertising jingles, folk/pop classics, soulful crooners and movie trailers.

It’s no secret that QT has an obsession with and knowledge of pop-culture trivia and detritus beyond the scope of any Mastermind researcher, but here, in his element, the details of his choices and placements are staggering. Rick’s first sight of Roman Polanski looking like Austin Powers in his crushed velvet suit and classic car soundtracked by a faux-sophisticated radio ad for men’s cologne: sinister trailers for The Illustrated Man and Three In The Attic burbling in Cliff’s car as he positively ROCKETS through the California night (there are car sequences in this film that are as excitingly shot as anything in Death Proof, even though nothing significant happens in them): Keith Mansfield’s unofficial Grindhouse theme/library record classic Funky Fanfare booming eerily across a near-deserted midnight drive-in.

For those who want it this film is painted inch-thick with such nuggets, the detail threatening to overwhelm the humans at the centre of the story. But this never happens. Everyone is doing their best work here, embodying their characters with relish. DiCaprio gives Rick Dalton a painfully recognisable insecurity which often manifests as a slight but noticeable stutter: his best scenes come in the film’s middle, a large chunk of which is devoted to a beautifully affectionate, note-perfect recreation of the sort of Quinn Martin/Screen Gems TV show they made too much of back then. People have complained that this film is too long, that judicious editing could have thrown half of it out with no damage done, but the best stuff in any QT film is when he decides to point his camera at parts of the world and moments in it that most film-makers can’t wait to skip past in a flurry of edits. Here Rick’s slow, uncertain befriending of his precocious 8-year-old co-star (Julia Butters) in a deserted part of the backlot has as much charm and spark as any other moment, and it feels right to spend time on it.

Similarly Sharon blagging her way into the cinema to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew would have been a 1-minute aside in any other film, but here we linger with her through the trailers (including CC & Company, one of QT’s favourite film of course) and stay with her and share her pleasure at the audience’s laughter as she klutzes and karates around the screen. It may be the most touching detail in the film that the footage on screen is of the real Sharon Tate: it’d be easy to CGI Margot Robbie into the footage so she can act opposite Dean Martin and Nancy Kwan (as they do elsewhere by putting DiCaprio convincingly in The Great Escape) but the small detail that Sharon Tate plays herself in at least one scene of this film feels moving and important.

Our big moment of just hanging out with Cliff for the day, however, has a more sinister component, as his teen hitchhiker Pussycat introduces him to, well the Manson family. Apart from a genuinely goosebump-inducing moment earlier in the film where we see all the girl’s dumpster diving while singing the infamous I’ll Never Say Never To Always (inescapable in newsreel footage of the murder trials) this is our first good look at them, and it’s as taut and unbearable as anything Tobe Hooper or Wes Craven ever gave us. We see the dilapidated Spahn Ranch and its unkempt inhabitants just as an unreconstructed 60s tough guy would see them, and it isn’t a pleasant sight. Here Tarantino’s inability to resist a show-stopping cameo gives us two: an unrecognisably bitter and spiteful Dakota Fanning invests Squeaky Fromme with a barely-contained rage and hatred that’s genuinely unnerving: a frail Bruce Dern gives us George Spahn ricocheting from bewilderment, to gratitude, to self-pity and finally to dismissive anger in a five-minute masterclass.

Of course, given the ostensible subject matter the homicidal insanity that killed the endless summer of the ’60s (as cliché would have us believe) has to intersect at some point with the fun, funny hang-out movie we’ve been watching: and that it does. Going into detail about the film’s finale would be wrong in a review, but let’s just say that by the point those kids start walking up Cielo Drive your nerves may be in shreds. And rightly so.

Tarantino has called this his most personal film and it’s easy to see why. It’s his version of a fairytale mixed with a partial portrait-cum-travelogue of a place he loves and a vibe he lives. His affections and obsessions are hammered like nails into the wood of this film from start to finish and while it would be wrong to call it an expensive home movie it’s also NOT wrong to call it that. In recent years he has continually threatened to quit film-making for good (and do what else, exactly? Fulfil his lifelong dream of working for minimum wage in a call centre? Come on man…). But if…IF…he DID decide that this was his swansong, it’s hard to think of a more perfect note to go out on that the bittersweet final moments of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. That title has obviously been purloined from his hero Sergio Leone, and it’s an act of staggering hubris that would look bad on any other film-maker. But somehow, like everything he does well, he gets away with it. Because once upon a time in Hollywood they let a blethering, middle-aged geek-baby do whatever he wanted with whoever he asked for. And it wasn’t always THAT good, but it was never, ever that predictable either.

❉ ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ (2019). BBFC Cert: 18. Director: Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen, Clifton Collins Jr., Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Mike MohRafal Zawierucha, Nicholas Hammond. Approx. Running minutes 161.

Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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