Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino
Rated R for language, some strong, graphic violence, drug use and sexual references
2 hr. 41 min.
To pen a fable is to tell a fictitious tale, usually with a moral. It’s a term associated more with the likes of Aesop than with Quentin Tarantino. Yet, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is a fable and more. It’s a love letter, an ode to a time and place, an era that is no more: Hollywood, California, at the end of the 1960s. I defy anyone, who was any age of cognizance, who remembers anything about pop culture and Southern California in 1969, not to be over the moon about what might well be Tarantino’s most passionate work since Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. And I challenge younger moviegoers not to be impressed with the recreation of a world that was like stumbling into a big-screen museum, with a lot of stories and larger-than-life characters, real and imagined.
The writer-director-auteur brings the wealth of his repertoire to this film, with the exceptions of a certain ethnic slur and the expansive presence of Samuel L. Jackson. The requisite Tarantino ultra-violence is quarantined to one act, the concurrent stories are many, the Hollywood landmarks are plentiful, and the soundtrack is vibrant — 1969 comes alive not just with music, but with the actual on-air work of the KHJ Boss disc jockeys. The voices of Robert W. Morgan, The Real Don Steele and Humble Harve Miller pour from car radios, as they did 50 years ago, when a music station on the AM band could still have omnipresent power. Even the old KHJ building on Melrose Avenue is in the movie, serving as the entrance to Columbia Pictures.
Tarantino has included all: bus benches advertising TV shows of the day, TV Guide, Mad Magazine, Life. Not all the nostalgia is factually correct, and it might be best to go into Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood remembering that fables are allegories, not documentaries.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a western TV star coming to a crossroads in his career, hanging with his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), realizing their universe — and all the world in 1969 — has gone through a sea change (those damn hippies!). Margot Robbie hauntingly embodies the late actress Sharon Tate, from her flaxen hair to her go-go boots. Rick lives next door to Tate on Cielo, in Benedict Canyon. Along with the eye-opening resurrection of late-’60s Hollywood, there’s a sense of foreboding, considering what was to happen to Tate and four friends in August of that year. Sure enough, Cliff Booth comes across members of Charles Manson’s “family,” including Dakota Fanning as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.
Like many from his generation of filmmakers, Tarantino leaves little on the editing room floor. It is a lengthy film, and there are those less enamored of period pieces who would think it too long. DiCaprio’s Dalton and Pitt as Booth travel to the precipice of what could be the end of their careers through a rich panoply of laughs, shocks and images of what used to be.
The cameos are plentiful. Al Pacino is a fictional casting agent who thinks Rick is perfect for a series of spaghetti westerns. Timothy Olyphant plays real-life actor James Stacy (who died in Ventura in 2016), star of the TV show Lancer. Rick makes a memorable guest appearance on the show, opposite child actor Trudi (the scene-stealing Julia Butters). More names and faces pop up before the credits — and wait until the very end for some genuine Boss Radio surprises.
Also, know fables are about the sanguine suggestion of what could be. Truth and fiction are found, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.