Fairy-tales may be defined as any story that is marked by seemingly unreal beauty, perfection, or happiness; if this seems like a somewhat common thread in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography it’s likely because even if his works are filled with violence, profanity and characters that are anything but appropriate for traditional “fairy-tales”, in the end, their imaginative and idealistic narratives fit right in to the dictionary’s definition.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood the title of his ninth feature film suggests this is indeed another dive into the realm of fairy tales, but this time with a focus on the era of supposed “free love” and peace. Like some of his other films Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood presents an alternate portrait of historical events with an idealized interpretation of how things should have turned out. As with one of the subtitles of Inglorious Basterds (Once Upon a Time in Nazi-occupied France), Hollywood exhibits a clear diversion of fact in certain instances, all the while within the space of plausibility.
Perhaps more than any of his other films, Tarantino has created a loving tribute to the time period (in this case Los Angeles in 1969), with tremendous attention to so much of the details that made the era unique; the recreation of the street scene, cars, wardrobe, ads, and technology are in fine form anchored by the seemingly small background things. An eclectic mix of iconic soundtracks, a bevy of cameos to represent the figures of the time (including Mama Cass, Steve McQueen,Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee), and the overall feeling and presentation of a simpler place, capture as best as can be achieved the essence of 1969, especially for those who were not alive yet.
With this film, a cinematic time machine has been created giving viewers an authentic little snapshot of the era, with all its glory and dark spots. There is a reverence for not only old Hollywood and the movies here, but of a period of history where a sort of innocence still lingered. At the end of the 1960s in America, which on the surface represented a turn towards peaceful coexistence, yet featured war and a handful of assassinations, the last sliver of hope would be forever tarnished by the Manson murders in the summer of 1969. As a new decade began, those looking back at the ’60s remembered the pockets of virtue and what could have been even more fruitful. Hence with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino takes his alternative history paintbrush in an attempt to rectify those last fleeting days of obstinate innocence that were besmirched by evil.
The presence of Sharon Tate (a glowing Margot Robbie) is a representation of shining innocence that the ’60s were meant to embody, that was unfairly extinguished. Indeed throughout the entire film, the depiction of 1960s life is placed in a bittersweet spotlight; with the ominous threat of what most audiences know will happen with Manson and his acolytes, we view the images on screen not just as a bygone era of 50 years ago, but of the last blow to a decade that struggled with so much public grief. This uneasiness is particularly felt in the film’s last act as we make our way towards the climax, expecting the worst but hoping for the best.
Yet despite this touching tribute or love letter type of embrace, Tarantino has again reliably created wonderful original characters that populate this tributed world. Although at times underdeveloped, it cannot be denied that there is an immediate and charming magnetism to the characters, especially Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt respectively. A mix of parody and homage (as is Tarantino’s signature), Rick and Cliff are certainly caricatures of TV and movie stars of the time, yet are simultaneously once more Tarantino’s way of honoring this former period.
For the aficionados of old film, as Tarantino is himself, there is plenty to appreciate here with both the characters and the settings. Not only is archival footage of films and shows used effectively, but the recreation in the style of 60’s TV westerns and detective programs, adds another layer of authenticity to this landscape of 1969. If it has not been evident that Quentin Tarantino holds dear to his heart these stars and former days of movie lore through his other films, Hollywood leaves no doubts whatsoever.
DiCaprio and Pitt form what seems an unlikely buddy romance, that drives (literally and figuratively) the film along; although the relationship could have benefited from being explored a little more deeply, the infectious rapport between the two is satisfyingly fun. DiCaprio in particular once more showcases his great acting prowess as the simultaneously cocky and insecure Rick Dalton, an actor struggling to live up to his former glory. As we witness his attempts to prove his worth, audiences are treated to numerous “films within a film”, once more paying homage to the movies and genres of the past with an abundance of Easter eggs with references to such names like Sergio Corbucci.
Filled with funny exchanges between Pitt and his other co-stars, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton may not be Tarantino’s best-written character but is assuredly another strong entry into his book of creations; Brad Pitt brings forward a calm assuredness of a type of rugged masculinity that makes Cliff Booth a real go-to character. Indeed Rick seems to nearly rely totally on Cliff who can reliably be counted on for many a task. While again this could have been explored further, just seeing this odd couple of sorts is entertainment enough; a particularly amusing scene involving Cliff and Bruce Lee on the set of a movie adds to the mystery of Cliff Booth. Who is this man that nearly beat the legend of Bruce Lee? Tarantino doesn’t give us much backstory, but in the end, we’re too busy admiring the wonderful and nostalgic canvas he has created for his characters.
Less openly violent than many of his previous works (with the exception of the film’s conclusion), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proceeds at a leisurely pace that allows us to take in all the vistas of Beverly Hills, its nightlife, its deserted ranches and the ups and downs of working on a film set. At times both funny and glamorous, the film functions not so much as a history lesson (though hardly any Tarantino movie could be called that) but as a postcard remembrance, idealizing and paying tribute.
Though it may be said it presents a blissful naivete of a time period, there is something to be said about the notion of Hollywood and society as a whole as a more innocent place. With the aftermath of the Second World War and the Communist spread of the ’50s, the 1960s were seen as the last hope for decency.
Thus, Tarantino’s 9th film is an embrace of the last sliver of that hope, in a time that while not perfect was still clinging on to ideals of a better world. Is this vision of 1969 indeed a fairy-tale, or are there nuggets of truth to this version of 50 years ago? While the alternate history is there and the typical Tarantino lampooning and praise is obvious, this Los Angeles of 1969 is a fond reminiscence of a period where talks of living in a fairy-tale world weren’t considered outrageous, but courageous.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proves itself to be another strong showcase of Quentin Tarantino’s creative and directorial talents, building itself as a nostalgic, heartfelt and yes ideal look at a seminal decade and year in our modern history. Brimming with detailed colors, images, laughs, and a clear affection for a history whose potential was never fully realized, this is a movie that pays both tributes and asks what if?
Where it will stand amongst his filmography will remain to be decided, but in the meantime, it can be agreed that where ever it ranks it surely rests as a fine representation of a director who has rightfully earned his laurels.