It’s like a fairytale. Yes, in his middle age, Tarantino has become sentimental.
It’s not just that the clue is in the title, there’s also a scene where Margot Robbie, playing Sharon Tate, is seated in a theatre and gleefully watching The Wrecking Crew, a 1968 movie Tate starred in alongside Dean Martin.
But the images that play across the screen aren’t Robbie, they are the real-life Tate — that demarcation between reality and illusion is a nod to the audience that what we’re watching isn’t real, only Tarantino’s wish-fulfilment fantasy.
And isn’t that what movies are, these stories of what could be, for better or worse. These are the kinds of layers running through Once Upon a Time, the ultimate Hollywood movie.
Less of a plot-driven story and more of an opulent mood piece, Once Upon a Time is a love letter, an evocation of a specific time and place, the golden age of filmmaking — a bubble that would be rudely burst soon after.
For Tarantino, preserving that near-innocence seems to be the driving force in Once Upon a Time, and despite the occasional sharp gibe, this is a tender, even intimate film.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt headline as fictional actors Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, two Hollywood has-beens whose time has come and gone.
Rick used to be the star of a TV western, but years on from its cancellation, he’s been reduced to playing villains of the week in other people’s shows, and his agent (Al Pacino) wants to him to go to Italy and make spaghetti westerns.
Cliff is Rick’s stunt double, but with Rick barely working, neither is Cliff, who mostly serves as Rick’s dogsbody. The two men just meander around, occasionally going to set but mostly driving and drinking to stymie their regrets.
There’s a lot of driving in Once Upon a Time, which not only fits LA’s vibe but also lets Tarantino showcase the town. On one of these drives, Cliff meets Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a member of the Charles Manson Family.
Pussycat is a composite character but there are many Manson followers that are based on real people, including Squeaky Frome (Dakota Fanning), Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Gypsy Share (Lena Dunham), Sadie Atkins (Mikey Madison), Katie Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) and Flower Child Kasabian (Maya Hawke).
Living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive is Roman Polanski and Tate. Historically, Tate and three friends including Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) become murder victims of Manson’s followers in a gruesome massacre that shook Hollywood and the world, an event that would end the innocence of the summer of love and swinging ’60s.
The film carries with it a sense of foreboding for everyone even remotely familiar with Tate’s story, but it mostly spends this luxurious and relaxed time just swimming in this world that Tarantino has created out of love and memory.
It’s clear he truly loves this era and that care is present in every frame and every reference — and there are scores, if not hundreds, from the obvious ones like Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) to lesser-known ones like Lancer or Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry).
You’ll catch snippets of references to Sirhan Sirhan on the radio and they’ll be visual cues to long forgotten shows and places.
There has been criticism levied at Tarantino for not giving enough share of dialogue to Robbie or for depicting a version of Hollywood that is overwhelmingly white.
Some of those quibbles are valid — Tate as a character is more object than fully rendered, but Robbie is luminous and hypnotic in the role, frequently dancing in shots that are beautifully lit.
But this is Tarantino’s vision, and his adulation is infectious. If you let yourself go along for the ride, you’ll find yourself in love too. And this is a movie that really benefits from a few days — let it germinate and you’ll find that it’s even more impressive after you’ve had time to sit with it.
And, of course, it's sumptuously filmed, all those textures layered into his compositions under that radiant Californian sun — an absolute visual pleasure.
I said at the beginning that Tarantino seems to have picked up a sentimental streak. This is a more conventional, conservative work than we’re used to from a filmmaker who made his mark challenging the norm — there’s nothing here that’s really confronting and the violence is limited to the final 10 minutes.
Once Upon a Time is the opposite to The Hateful Eight, which is so acrid, leaving a bitter taste in your mouth as the credits rolled. This is a weirdly easygoing, almost jubilant film, one that you will make you, shock horror, happy?
It’s exhilarating and satisfying and, while always controversial to state, one of Tarantino’s best.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in cinemas from today
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