The Summer of ‘69, according to Quentin Tarantino
In addition to the moon landing and the Miracle Mets, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders, a seminal event that too many signified the end of the Swingin’ Sixties.
The sheer notion of Quentin Tarantino committing this era to celluloid is a tantalizing one, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – his ninth film, as the ads proudly proclaim – is steeped in the pop-culture milieu he’s embraced since day one.
It’s not a documentary or even a docudrama, nor was it ever intended to be. This isn’t history revised; it’s history rewritten – which is nothing new for Tarantino, having upended a few historical facts in his 2008 hit The Inglorious Basterds, for which, it should be noted, he won the Academy Award Best Original Screenplay … And original it was.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, at heart, a buddy movie. The buddies are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), best known for a Western television series called Bounty Law, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his former student double and current minder.
At this particular point, Rick is stumbling through guest stints on other T.V. Westerns, mulling offers to appear in spaghetti Westerns, and convinced that his career is on the skids. It’s fun to watch DiCaprio play a dissipated, self-pitying neurotic, while Pitt plays Cliff as someone grateful for what career he did have and is happy to keep Rick’s spirits up. There’s a nobility in Cliff’s simple perspective on life, which makes for a nice contrast to Rick.
Just up the street from Rick – on Cielo Drive — lives the starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Newly married to the acclaimed Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), who’s riding high on the success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Tate lives what appears to be a charmed life, hobnobbing with the top celebrities of the day, with a glorious career in front of her.
Fate, of course, would deal her the cruelest hand, but that’s not on Tarantino’s agenda at all. Yes, the Manson family hovers, although Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who plays the same role in the Netflix series Mindhunter) is but a shadowy presence, often referred to but only briefly glimpsed.
There are digs at contemporary Hollywood and nods toward its past, delivered in the trademark staccato fashion that has always been a major component of Tarantino’s films. Some scenes burst with the sheer sensation of joy that comes only from movies, proof that Tarantino still brings a genuine (and genuinely skewed) sense of wonder to his work. There’s no question that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is grand entertainment, and cinematographer Robert Richardson revels in the heady, kaleidoscopic imagery of late ‘60s Tinseltown.
Yet somehow the sum is less than its parts. The film spins off into various tangents, not all of which are necessary, and not all of which are resolved.
The historical elements that the film uses as background are compelling enough on their own, and somewhere deep down, one can only wonder what Tarantino would have done with a straightforward account of the Manson murders, yet it most certainly wouldn’t – and couldn’t – have been as enjoyable as this. Then again, even the very title Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is indicative of a fairy tale, although it being Tarantino it’s very much an R-rated fairy tale.
There’s a parade of familiar faces: Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch (as Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring), Damian Lewis (as Steve McQueen), Zoe Bell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Lena Dunham, Rebecca Gayheart, Margaret Qualley, Nicholas Hammond (hilarious as actor-turned-director Sam Wanamaker), and the late Luke Perry (in his final role) – yet some barely make an impression.
Even Robbie, ostensibly the leading lady, glides through the proceedings like an ethereal presence. Her interactions with DiCaprio and Pitt are minimal. She’s in a movie of her own — a bubblier, happier story than Rick and Cliff’s, which makes for an amusing irony.
Both DiCaprio and Pitt bring full-throttle star power to the proceedings, exuding expert comic timing and on-screen chemistry, and there are terrific bits by Julia Butters as a precocious young actress whose professionalism inspires Rick’s, and Mike Moh’s spot-on impression of Bruce Lee, shown here playing Cato on The Green Hornet series, whose boasting rubs the even-tempered Cliff the wrong way.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.