Film review: “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” (2019)

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” (2019)

Drama

Running time: 161 minutes

Written & Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Featuring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino

Cliff Booth: “Alright, What’s the matter partner?”

Rick Dalton: “It’s official old buddy, I’m a has been.”

Well its official the latest (and ninth) Quentin Tarantino has opened, that being the homage titled “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” (2019) (as seen onscreen), a period piece set in the late 60s/early 70s that is basically a ‘hang out’ movie (that is we seem to be just spending time with DiCaprio/Pitt), as well as fictionalising an earlier time in Hollywood as well as featuring almost every single pop culture element of that time and in classic Tarantino fashion also boasts a huge soundtrack that resonates more than the actual plot, if there could be said to be any at all. This movie much like “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) is a loose narrative built around real events but featuring events as well as characters purely fictionalized based on real people who are amalgams of truer characters; the line between reality and fiction is blurred as it has real people on the periphery so legitimising the entire endeavour. What this means for this film as well as others of its ilk is really unknown at this time as history will judge the relative success or failure, but for now it left me a little cold in one way but it was a fun ride while it lasted which is how I feel those involved felt. The time in which this is set is one of the most important aspects of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, it is a time of real change, not only in terms of the politics of the day, but the landscape of entertainment was shifting as well, money from outside Hollywood was arriving with conglomerates purchasing studios outright, Hollywood was about to see the arrival of the ‘easy rider, raging bull’ generation (which Quentin wishes he was a part of) and the last real generation of legends were born, that is the last true movie stars. The movie also features a who’s who of actors who have appeared in previous Tarantino movies from his first effort to his last, with some new additions, most notably Margot Robbie who shines in a limited role. Curiously this film marks a major part of the US Summer box office as one of only a handful of original movies released not only during this period but this year in total, it will unlike many original films this year make money for its distributor Sony, in spite of its release, R rating and subject matter.

If this movie was said to be based on anything it is definitely the idea behind Peter Biskind’s book (later documentary “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood” (2003)) which covers much of the results of what occurs within this film. This movie acts as more of a homage to the imagined reality of Hollywood in 1969 as opposed to the real events which makes the entire thing a lot more palatable, especially with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in the lead roles as Clint Eastwood and Hal Needham types respectively, two of the greatest ever in their jobs. Of course, the most obvious person that DiCaprio and Tarantino could have chosen to ape would have been Needhams closest friend Burt Reynolds but that may have been too on the nose, although Reynolds was supposed to make an appearance here. What is obvious throughout this film is that Tarantino has a love for this period that he has emulated throughout his career not only as director but as screenwriter, this is the strength of the narrative where is comes unstuck is in its treatment of real events and people, especially Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Bruce Lee and Charles Manson, which do not feature as much as one might think, this was definitely the right decision to make. 

The movie initially set in 1969 Los Angeles, centres around actor Rick Dalton, the former star of the 1950s Western television series Bounty Law, who finds his career faltering due to ongoing alcoholism issues. Dalton laments to Cliff Booth, his best friend and stunt double, that his career is over. Booth, a war veteran who lives in a derelict trailer next to a drive-in in Van Nuys, attempts to bolster Dalton’s self-confidence. Meanwhile, actress Sharon Tate  and her husband Roman Polanski have just moved into the home next door to Dalton’s. Dalton hopes to befriend the couple and use Polanski to restore his leading man status.

Quentin Tarantino has never been known as someone who tackles issues or is at pains to analyse elements of politics and society in ways others might, but here we see a deep dive into the past with a huge number of themes covered, but in ways that are not heavy handed or will be even obvious to most, which has to be a part of Tarantinos growth as a man as well as a talent. While the plot of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is pedestrian at best there are few writers of dialogue like Tarantino, this is perhaps his greatest attribute as is his way with a character, both of which come from his upbringing and training. The other great aspect of Tarantinos movies is the look, placement and movement of the camera where he is assisted by legendary and long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson who again shows what a master can do given the freedom he obviously has with his director. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is possibly the best looking, most assuredly directed film this year, it will certainly take something special to see something any better or well composed. 

The movie is led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt who are both effortless in their portrayal of their characters, although with these two at the head of any movie it matters little what they both actually do. Here Tarantino uses them as what they are, movie stars, who as an audience you feel like you are on a journey with them which is almost exactly the point. Neither of them are strangers to Tarantino or his movies as both have worked with him prior to this, so they know what he requires and they play along, almost at times winking to the audience which is to be expected. Of course, one of the other major aspects of a Tarantino movie is the way he casts great character actors in major parts or even just in cameos, in particular he always has actors he loves, so we see Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant and a whole host of others which for a cinephile is a true treat indeed. No matter who we see in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” they are all serving the purpose of auteur Tarantino who, no matter what you think of him, is in total command. Which brings me to the casting of Margot Robbie, Rafal Zawierucha and Damon Herriman as Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson respectively who are all excellent as real people in their limited time onscreen, it is a shame as I would have liked to see more of them, all three are unforgettable which is saying something as the three are still major parts of Hollywood history and lore. 

Tarantino touches on a host of real events and locations such as the Playboy Mansion, studio backlots, real as well as legendary locations, the Italian movie scene, some of the sentimental L.A. restaurants and hotels which mean a lot to the director. We also see some very real commentary on stardom, popular music, the actual power of stardom, Hollywood homes, modern consumerism, old fashioned greed, drugs, cults, fetishism, auteur power, growing importance of TV, waning of star power, talent versus luck, egotism, truth versus the legend, the end of the swinging 60s into something more serious and troubling, the burgeoning porn industry, the importance of genre and a host of other ideas that will unfold on further viewings I am sure. At its very best “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is a snapshot of Hollywood over a handful of years that highlights some of the ways change took place in Hollywood as well as the entire media landscape which is one of the most important periods in not only Hollywood but the world itself. Through the leads characters eyes we see drugs come to the fore, independent cinema become a voice for a generation, foreign cinema as opportunity that still exists today, the lack of permanence and who that still resonates, the passing of an old guard and of course violence as not only metaphor but a way to cement struggle. 

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” as a movie is interesting as it uses a lot exposition as it disseminates a possible forgotten history which the director wants to keep alive but because of this it sometimes feels like a history lesson and not entertainment. To bring a sense of the time Tarantino where he can uses real footage from movies as well as intercutting his actors with the that footage which is a way to legitimise his own ideas and this works to a degree, especially when Sharon Tate is in a theatre watching herself in “The Wrecking Crew” (1968). The director also recognises the importance of genre as well as changing tastes in regards to genre which Hollywood (and Tarantino himself) lives off and generates billions of dollars each year from.

With “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” Tarantino has written and directed a film that contains a lot of material that will appeal to a wide audience, it has big stars being funny, loud and action orientated, it also has a lot of elements people will recognise as being Tarantinoish, he pokes fun at institutions but at the same time he has reverence as he is now part of the same institutions. You will enjoy this if you love movies as well as have an admiration for cinema and its history as well as that being skewered and heavily fictionalised. Ultimately though this will appeal to those who worship at the altar of Tarantino, it will not bring new people in but will legitimise his own success. It still has many elements that make him popular, it is violent, is overly masculine and is not at all woke, it is like the writer and director a throwback which is maybe what we need right now.

Soundtrack:

Treat Her Right – Roy Head & The Traits (1965)

The Green Door – Jim Lowe (1956), performed by Leonardo DiCaprio

I’ll Never Say Never To Always – Charles Manson (1969)

Mrs. Robinson – Simon & Garfunkel (1968)

The Letter – Joe Cocker (1969)

Summertime – Billy Stewart (1956)

Funky Fanfare – Keith Manfield (1969)

Hector – The Village Callers (1968)

Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man – The Bob Seger System (1968)

The House That Jack Built – Aretha Franklin (1968)

MacArthur Park – Robert Goulet (1969)

Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course – Chad & Jeremy (1968)

Hush – Deep Purple (1968)

Son of a Lovin’ Man – Buchanan Brothers (1969)

Choo Choo Train – The Box Tops (1968)

Kentucky Woman – Deep Purple (1968)

Good Thing – Paul Revere & The Raiders (1966)

Time for Livin’ – The Association (1968)

Hungry – Paul Revere & the Raiders (1966)

The Circle Game – Buffy Sainte-Marie (1967)

Jenny Take a Ride – Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (1965)

Can’t Turn You Lose – Otis Redding (1967)

Soul Serenade – Willie Mitchell (1968)

Bring a Little Lovin’ – Los Bravos (1966)

Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show – Neil Diamond (1969)

Hey Little Girl – Dee Clark (1959)

Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon – Paul Revere & the Raiders feat. Mark Lindsay (1969)

Don’t Chase Me Around – Robert Corff (1969)

California Dreamin’ – Jose Feliciano (1968)

Dinamite Jim (English Version) – I Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni (1966)

Out of Time – The Rolling Stones (1966)

Straight Shooter – The Mamas & The Papas (1966)

Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon) – The Mamas & The Papas (1968)

Snoopy vs. The Red Baron – The Royal Guardsman (1966)

You Keep Me Hangin’ On – Vanilla Fudge (1967)

Miss Lily Langtry – Maurice Jarre (1972)

Judge Roy Bean’s Theme – Maurice Jarre (1972)

Batman Theme – Neal Hefti (1966)

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