*No major spoilers in the review* Quentin Tarantino films are not for everyone though they do feel like cinematic events. The director proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, you only have to look at the title which is a throwback to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Tarantino’s latest (like the aforementioned Leone titles) is a period film, going for an authentic depiction of 1969. Some characters are real people, others are fictional. Sometimes the storytelling is slow yet I could see myself revisiting as many scenes have stuck with me. It feels rewatchable and you don’t need to remember the era to connect with the story. The director has assembled an incredible cast rivalling Stallone’s The Expendables line-up or the recent Marvel Avengers blockbusters.
Stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is one of QT’s most interesting characters, he’s a contradiction of good and bad, his past is shrouded in mystery, and not dissimilar to a real life tragedy involving actress Natalie Wood. Rebecca Gayheart stars as Booth’s wife in a role that is bizarrely comparable to her own tragic circumstances in which she killed a child in a 2001 road accident. The humor and innuendo in the film is pretty disturbing, however if you’ve seen QT’s filmography you know what to expect, in terms of mixing violence, comedy, and entertainment. Another controversy is making money off Roman Polanski’s misfortune. Polanski’s current wife Emmanuelle Seigner shaded QT for not even asking permission. A third controversy involves martial arts legend Bruce Lee which I won’t go into as it’s spoilery territory.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s storyline as actor Rick Dalton has pacing issues, the parts with him acting in westerns felt indulgent but are occasionally heartfelt or funny. Tarantino has admitted Dalton is bipolar which adds another dimension to the character. If you are interested in the stress and challenges of acting, and the hard work that goes into it, then it takes you to those places. The theme of Dalton feeling like a has-been in the industry is juxtapositioned with Sharon Tate’s rise to fame and optimism for the future. The aged relic aspect also has a meta angle to it, as Tarantino himself is reassessed in a post-Weinstein age. Perhaps QT watched The House That Jack Built (2018), a late career work by Lars von Trier, which on one level is a response to the Danish director’s own conduct and history.
Actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) isn’t given much to do in the film but there is a sense of a character. Her already troubled marriage to Polanski isn’t delved into at all, maybe that’s not relevant to what Tarantino is doing here. Sharon Tate’s murder by the Manson gang is seen as symbolic of the end of the Sixties and overshadowed her film work. In the movie, Tarantino wants to focus on her innocence, love of life, going to parties, and enjoying Hollywood stardom. Tarantino goes for a romanticized woman rather than a truthful representation of Tate’s life. If you are hoping to learn about the real Sharon Tate, then you should probably look elsewhere. Instead Tarantino prefers to explore the joy of all aspiring stars seeing themselves on posters and movie screens. It’s easy to label Robbie’s scenes as simplistic, yet despite the sugar-coating of reality, I find her less cartoonish compared to previous cool-for-the-sake of-being-cool Tarantino characters. We only follow Tate for brief amounts of time so it’s hard to dig deeper, but you could question if she is in love with fame and has a need for admiration, a character study of the pitfalls of fame. Margot Robbie’s performance is engrossing in spite of how few lines she has in the film.
I go to the cinema not to watch politically correct characters but to be surprised and this movie certainly is daring and unpredictable. QT has made a name for himself where anything can happen to any character, and this is what makes his films special. The director’s latest will probably be nominated for an oscar for the meticulous retro 1960s production design albeit disappointing the impatient camera doesn’t linger on the sets which a director’s cut version might fix. Perhaps QT should have turned the script into a TV-series as 2 hours 41 minutes isn’t enough time to tell all these stories while also being too long for a single sitting. A four hour cut is rumored to be heading to Netflix.
The soundtrack features lots of great songs from the era. Probably the most memorable choices are Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show and Bring a Little Lovin’ by Los Bravos which play nostalgically when Cliff drives his car and bumps into Margaret Qualley’s hippie character. Qualley could well be in consideration for supporting actress awards.
While QT still continues his juvenile tendency to bask in over-the-top violence, arguably OUATIH is his most melancholy, nostalgic, and compassionate film to date, a love letter to people grinding out unexceptional work. There are parallels to the decline of Hollywood now and the rise of streaming services, as well as the transition from TV to film, and vice versa.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has its moments but is not perfect and in need of an editor. The most vibrant sequences are when Cliff goes to the Manson ranch and the ending. Cliff Booth is one of the most ambiguous characters QT has penned and Brad Pitt may finally win an acting oscar for this performance.
What do you think? As always, comments are welcome