Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s most playful film since Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1 and ranks right up there with them as one of his very best.
Once upon a time in Hollywood there was an actor named Rick Dalton. He used to be a big screen badass who torched Nazis with a flamethrower, but by 1969 he’s a has-been small screen cowboy hanging out with his stunt double and only friend Cliff Booth, and griping about hippies. He’s not about to make spaghetti westerns and the odd TV role he does land always casts him as the villain, where he struggles to keep the lid on his hip flask and remember lines. He still lives in luxury, to a degree, on Cielo Drive, right next door to director Roman Polanksi and his wife, Sharon Tate.
The 9th film by Quentin Tarantino (technically the tenth if you count his Grindhouse contribution Death Proof, which he doesn’t), Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a dazzling Technicolor trip down memory lane for the director and movie buffs nostalgic for a time when cinema marquees lined Hollywood Boulevard and 35mm film prints were loaded in screening rooms. This is Tarantino playing in his own backyard and inviting the audience to unpack the toy box along with him, which is as much fun as it sounds.
It’s also light on his trademark malarkey and surprisingly linear in its storytelling. Not that there’s a lot of plot to speak of, more a collage of colourful events and moments in the lives of its three principle characters – Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), Booth (Brad Pitt) and Tate (Margot Robbie).
The recreation of late sixties LA is stunning, creating a palpable sense of time and place that’s peppered with the commercials, posters, radio spots and music of the period, along with Hollywood icons like Musso & Frank Grill, the Cinerama Dome and Van Nuys Drive-In. Moreover, the film is as much a love letter to the television of the time as the Tinseltown ethos.
Dalton and Booth are Tarantino’s finest double-act since Pulp Fiction’s Vincent and Jules. DiCaprio stirs plenty of empathy for the washed-up and self-doubting Dalton. But it’s Pitt who steals the show as the laconic stuntman – his frequently deadpan delivery evokes his True Romance stoner and he’s arguably a more interesting character than Dalton. And Robbie is luminous as Sharon Tate, whose joyous moment in a cinema screening one of her own films (the 1968 Dean Martin caper The Wrecking Crew) is one of the many highlights.
Despite all the cheerfulness on display, Hollywood does of course have a dark side, and it would be spoiling things to discuss the Manson Family’s involvement here. Suffice to say Pitt pays a visit to Charlie’s ranch that’s creepy in the extreme, and the infamous events on the night of August 8, 1969, do factor into the film’s insanely brilliant – and insanely violent – curveball climax.
In cinemas: August 15, 2019
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino