You are going to want to brush up on your 1960s Hollywood history before watching this!
Rick Dalton is a Hollywood megastar of the 1950s and 60s just coming to terms with the idea that he is losing his edge, that younger actors are taking his place. His stuntman, Cliff Booth, despite living a far more liberated life, feels the pressure too as his meal ticket threatens to disappear. Can Rick rediscover himself and what it is to be an actor again in time?
The ninth film from director Quentin Tarantino is perhaps not what general audiences expected, indeed, looking at the trailer there is a vibe of “what is this film actually about?” Following two colossal successes with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has never been more popular with cinema-goers. Which is why it is peculiar he has made such an indulgent, very personal movie.
Perhaps “peculiar” is the wrong word; once you have everyone under your sway, you can do whatever you want. The more pressing fact is; this film will likely alienate a large portion of general audiences, and not because of the usual Tarantino flair. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Set in the 1960s, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows three stars of the silver screen. We have a wayward and unlucky Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) a young and upcoming starlet. Dalton is a representation of a moment most actors likely go through; when studios stop calling you in for lead roles, start bringing you in to play ill-fated villains instead. He’s losing his cool, but still wants to be as good as he has been. The film’s script, for the most part, is Dalton’s introspection and struggle with self-esteem and confidence.
Booth’s character has far more leg work; while Dalton is trying to reignite his career, Booth is driving around the local Hollywood sights. The film’s pacing is often meandering, allowing audiences to soak in the environments, the sets, the soundtrack, the 1960s. The raw violence of the last two films, even the flashy styling of the Kill Bill movies are absent here. Booth’s story does take an unusual turn however…
Completely isolated from the two men’s stories, Sharon Tate, a young star, is quietly revelling in her recent fame.
What this film needs from its audience, is a real attention for Hollywood history. There is a fairly simple test, thrown in early on, as director Roman Polanski is a character. If you don’t know who Roman Polanski is, you are probably going to have a problem following this film.
By extension, the film’s story is about the Charles Manson murders. Which considering everything aforementioned may come as a surprise to many. The film does not make a show about this until the second half, escalating heavily into the final act. While Dalton and Booth are fictional characters, they interact with real people from Hollywood’s history, leading to an alternate history. Not dissimilar to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.
This, admittedly, requires some working knowledge from the audience to work as effectively as it should; Tarantino does not have prologue text telling you what to expect, the script doesn’t provide very many smoking guns to follow. If you don’t know the first thing about any 1960s Hollywood, cinema, or the Manson cult, this film will be a bizarre sequence of events that don’t appear to have any correlation. You will think of it as indulgent at best.
But if you do know the history, and enjoy Tarantino’s work so far, you could have a new favourite. The film is gorgeously filmed with impeccable set design, the performances are magnetic without being gratuitous, and while it pokes around with fun and games, there is a lingering air of danger. It is especially fun to pick up on all the surface level retro references, or enjoy the meta-humour with the fictional movies and television shows Rick Dalton starred in, all filmed and shot in black and white, or the blown-out colour grading of the early 1960s. The film has a lot of quick humour and yes, extraordinary gore that Tarantino fans will be blown away by.
The pure accessibly of Django and Inglorious, or the narrow focus of Hateful Eight, put them above this experience… but for a particular fan of movies and American culture, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will be exceptional.