A ride in the back of a classic car, soaking up the sun and casual sin of 1969 L.A is the aim for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but true to form, that particular road is neither straightforward or well travelled in the world of Quentin Tarantino.
The hotly anticipated and first Tarantino film post-Weinstein is an unusual marrying of fact and fiction where Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a waning film star finds himself neighbour to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as he and his stuntman (Brad Pitt) fall out of movie favour and see their lives take a surreal left turn. Meanwhile Tate finds herself blooming into a media darling and attracting all sorts of attention.
Combining the very real Tate and fictional Dalton makes for an interesting story once you add the Manson family, Roman Polanski, Bruce Lee, a flamethrower and some artistic license. The trick to enjoying it it is not to take anything too literally and acknowledge, certainly by the end of the film, that this is a different 1969 to the one we know, where Dalton and Booth instigate the difference. Otherwise the feel and look of the late 1960s has been meticulously reconstructed; from TV shows, to radio broadcasts, advertising campaigns, shopping products, cars, fashion. It’s all there and it looks and sounds absolutely wonderful.
OUATIH’s strengths and weaknesses are both reflected in its length. Getting on towards three hours there is plenty time to examine several genres quite fully; horror at the Spahn Ranch and comedy/drama depending on the movie set or the boys’ mood. But the choppy, scrapbook-like story means that not all of the scenes are necessary: We know Dalton is fragile because Leo plays him that way – we didn’t need 3 scenes to hammer the point home. But to praise the length, the amount of time spent in Tarantino’s 1969 is wonderfully immersive. He could have given us 3 hours driving around the desert with Dalton and Booth conversing and it would still have been fun, just maybe not five star viewing.
The dialogue is much tighter than in past efforts but QT has still kept some of his indulgences. He uses every convention of cinema at his disposal; flashbacks, films within films, a narrator, different film stocks, black and white scenes, referencing his own films, and beautifully doctoring old footage. However, shots of bare feet that border on gratuitous are plentiful and tiresome, and part of the film gets unnecessarily bogged down in times and locations to no real payoff. It’s been toted as QT’s love letter to Hollywood and it really is a huge piece of work to be proud of, but to lay the praise wholly at his feet would be undermining the importance of everyone else involved, particularly the cast who are outstanding alongside the wonderful costume, stunt and set designers.
To some extent the wait for new Tarantino material actually continues throughout the film. Only in the end, where it slips into full blown madness do we find the stuff we stereotypically associate with him. Up until that point you could be forgiving for thinking it was made by another, more reined-in director. Though once fully up and running with the plot lines converging, it delivers all its goods, gradually ratcheting up the tension to a thunderous ending and reminding us whose film we’re watching.
The fresh faces from cameos keep it interesting and quirky (ft. Damian Lewis as a brief but uncanny Steve McQueen). At this point QTs films are a parade of previous collaborators and guest spots from a cast that’d cost an astronomical amount if they had more than a minute of screen time – though no one is complaining. Musically it features almost 30 songs given some sort of short focus, almost like changing the radio station every other minute. Perhaps that was the aim, but it never really settles in terms of a soundtrack other than occasionally setting the scene. Fortunately there’s so much to see that the sound is often of lesser importance.