Early on in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) teases her friend, hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), for dancing to the record she's put on: Don't worry, she says, she won't tell Jim Morrison he was grooving out to Paul Revere and the Raiders.
A hardworking '60s band in the garage-psychedelia vein, Paul Revere and the Raiders had some good tunes and rode the wave of the British Invasion for a while, and plugged away on a daytime TV show produced by Dick Clark. But they certainly weren't cool—not like Jim Morrison in 1969 or now, and not like Tate, the modish blonde star of Valley of the Dolls and wife of Roman Polanski, the European art film director whose Rosemary's Baby the previous year was one of the signal successes of a stylish, risk-taking New Hollywood rising from the ashes of the old studio system.
A bit behind the times, a bit derivative, Paul Revere and the Raiders were more like the musical equivalent of Tate's next-door neighbor on Cielo Drive in Tarantino's alternate-history Hollywood: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who used to be the star of the NBC Western Bounty Law, but now mostly just drinks too much and worries, to the ever-sympathetic ear of his stunt double, gofer and babysitter Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), that his career is drying up into guest spots on the same stale old TV shows. Meanwhile, the newly hip Hollywood of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider blazes a trail right past him and into the future.
The contrast between the retrograde dreck of the Dalton oeuvre and the flamboyant artistry and counterculture zest of Tate and Polanski's crew is made clear when the camera cranes up away from Dalton, adrift in his kidney-shaped pool, running lines for the pilot he's shooting the next day, getting buzzed and then blitzed on whiskey sours, and over towards the next house, where Tate and Polanski are zooming off to dance at the Playboy Mansion with their friend Steve McQueen. It's not a subtle juxtaposition—Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not a subtle movie—but it effectively signals what Tarantino has set out to do, which is to reclaim and celebrate the endeavor of pop culture's also-rans.
The first thing we see in the movie is a black-and-white shot of a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster, a shot from Bounty Law and a tribute to the kinds of forgettable TV Westerns that launched McQueen into The Great Escape and superstardom at the start of the '60s. Tarantino loves this kind of stuff, of course—this is the guy who sprung onto the scene in the early '90s as a savant-like video store clerk and omnivorous movie freak, and who believes that one of the 10 greatest films of all time is Rolling Thunder, starring William Devane as a Vietnam vet with a hook for a hand who goes on a killing spree. Tarantino has a ravenous appetite for the kind of culture that pickier eaters might send back—he licks every plate in the restaurant, and fills his films with snippets from City on Fire and Game of Death, Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield, the Delfonics and April March. The experience of the world in his films is embodied and amplified by reference after reference to his hoarded faves. They come pre-loaded with meaning.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the prominent soundtrack needle-drops include Paul Revere and the Raiders, the best Neil Diamond song ("Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show"), and the worst Joni Mitchell song ("The Circle Game"; sorry, my middle school music teacher, but you know it's true). And, L.A.'s movie marquees are lit up to advertise pictures like the Sinatra noir sequel Lady in Cement and the cheapie sex farce Three in the Attic. Grainy tube TVs play Mannix and The F.B.I. The film is set 50 years ago—the year of Woodstock, as someone may have reminded you recently—but not all mass culture is fashionable when it's happening, until history comes along to streamline the narrative. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, takes place during one of the most mythologized periods in the history of American moving-image culture, and at the heart of it all, everyone's watching the 1969 equivalent of The Big Bang Theory. (In other words, it's a time much like the present. And lo and behold, just tune your antenna to Cozi TV or Decades… and you can still find Bonanza reruns.)
To this already comprehensive syllabus, Tarantino adds his own inventions, as well: posters and clips from Rick Dalton pictures like The 14 Fists of McClusky, a mockup of one of those logy Dirty Dozen-ish WWII exploitation pictures Tarantino upcycled into his own Inglorious Basterds. When Dalton's character lights up a bunch of high-ranking Nazis with a flamethrower ("Anyone order fried sauerkraut?"), it's a nod to previous Tarantino fantasies. His is a sensibility formed purely out of pulp fictions. He's like one of his beloved Italian genre directors of the '70s, who found in translation what was impossible for Americans see in their own throwaway culture, and made a star out of an unfashionable CBS Friday-night cowboy named Clint Eastwood. And if the leather-skinned producer played by Al Pacino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has anything to say about it, the Italians might do the same for Rick Dalton.
Of Sergio Leone, the spaghetti Western auteur who directed Eastwood in the legendary "Man with No Name" trilogy, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said that "he's involved in his childhood fixations about movies—stories enlarged, simplified, mythicized." Whenever a character crosses a street in a Leone movie, Kael said, the street is as wide as Park Avenue; every barroom and backroom in Leone's world is the size of a sports arena. Leone and his compatriots made the movies that they dreamed of, assembled from half-remembered scraps. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—the title borrows from Leone's Western Once Upon a Time in the West, and his gangster movie Once Upon a Time in America—Tarantino does what Leone did for the artifacts they both loved. He makes the movie that was in his head the whole time he was watching them.
The faked '60s television in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is strikingly well-directed given the constraints of time, money, tools, and ambition that bound even the artsiest episodic work in the medium's early decades. In Bounty Law clips, high and low camera angles and long shadows create depth within the flat, squared-off TV set frame, and Tarantino's control of pacing makes even the cardboard-iest dialogue hum with suspense. When Rick is on set to shoot his episode of Lancer—a real show, which ran for two seasons on CBS very late in the cycle of this always unfashionable genre, and which is a deep cut even for Tarantino—the camera tracks and swivels, low to the sandy ground as cowboy boots take slow, giant steps across it. It's just a shoddy backlot, but Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson make the spaces look as vast, the compositions as charged as in a Leone showdown. The saloon in Lancer is cavernous—the whole thing is, as Kael said, "enlarged," and Rick's day on the set of this fawning, exacting recreation of a forgotten and forgettable CBS drama is, incredibly, the centerpiece of this movie.
Lancer is beautifully acted by a couple of today's Rick Daltons, Timothy Olyphant and the late Luke Perry, playing yesterday's versions of themselves, real-life actors James Stacy and Wayne Maunder; they know how to show up, hit their marks, and color their line readings with the faintest undercoats of personality. Their triumph will be Rick's, too—after his insecurity and line-flubbing leads him to a fuming, stammering, spittle-flecked self-flagellating near-breakdown in his trailer, he manages to pull himself together, and give a performance that meets with the satisfaction of his young co-star, an eight-year-old girl played with grave precocity, embodying the seriousness and enthusiasm with which these jobbing actors approach their work. Tarantino honors their commitment. Lancer looks good, by any standard, and Rick's big scene is presented continuously—though the director says "Cut" at the end, and the crew resumes bustling around, what we see leading up to that is the finished product, with all the multiple takes from different camera setups already dreamed into a seamless whole.
In the current franchise-heavy, corporate-art era of film history, when fewer and fewer contemporary American filmmakers have the cachet to explore their fetishes on the scale of a Hollywood studio release, Tarantino's headcanon has ended up taking on a somewhat engorged importance in The Discourse. Is he a genius? Is he just doing tiresome insular shit for "bros" like him? These questions would matter less if there were more filmmakers about whom we could ask them. It's surely not just coincidental that a straight white movie geek is the one who still gets the kind of backing that Tarantino gets from movie executives, sure, but even in saying that, it's still worth retaining an appreciation for the idiosyncrasy of his vision.
Then, too, his project, defined broadly, is a matter of being unapologetic and small-c catholic about the stuff that inspires him, regardless of its pedigree, and that's inherently democratic. Throughout the '90s, indie and major studios shoveled money at a whole host of Tarantino-lite posers, but the real "next Tarantino" won't be a douche in sunglasses making an inferior rehash of Reservoir Dogs, it'll be someone else who's expansive and passionate about a totally different, equally personal set of obsessions.
That said, as invigorating as the authentic presence of a singular voice is on 2019's movie screens, there's a ceiling on what the gonzo self-referentiality of the Tarantino sensibility is capable of doing. When Rick Dalton comes through LAX, a shot of him walking down a hallway of mosaic tiles makes you think of a similar shot in Jackie Brown, which of course was itself a reference to The Graduate, and as much as that shot is aesthetically pleasing, metatextually exciting, and makes a serious point about how movies frame and mediate our experience of the world, it's also airtight and unreal—you sense Tarantino wouldn't know how to find the shape of a lot of the rituals of everyday life without movie cliches to guide him. There is not as much daylight between the "fried sauerkraut" and some of the rest of the dialogue in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as there needs to be for that line to register as a cheesy movie-movie one-liner—that's kind of just how Brad Pitt sounds, too, when he gets into a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet.
Anyway. If it seems odd to be talking to so much about spaghetti Westerns in a movie that's haunted by the specter of Tate, Sebring, and three others' impending murder by the Manson Family, well, the thing is… Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a pretty odd movie, one quite deliberately in the shadows of the zeitgeist—there's plenty of wiki-verifiable history here as the characters brush up against the Manson cultists, but the main thrust of the movie is as remote from that as Rick Dalton is from the Polanski filmography.
The film is marked by things that are tantalizingly all but absent—like Charles Manson, who's barely a character, and women's footwear, which is barely worn. While Rick is shooting Lancer, Cliff drives a barefoot hippie-chick hitchhiker back to the old movie ranch where the Manson Family are holed up (Cliff strides around this old tumbleweed-y derelict Western set in suede boots while his boss does the same thing on his Western set, in boots made to look 100 years older). And at the same time, Robbie's Tate sheds her go-go boots and puts her feet up on the seat in front of her at a movie theater, her soles big and a little dirty in a foreground quadrant of the widescreen frame. (It's an edgy joke on auteurist self-indulgence for Tarantino, who famously has a Foot Thing, to tease us with what may well qualify as pornography for him, but is mostly just a striking composition if you're not into that stuff. And I suppose if you're Margot Robbie there's been plenty of times in your career when you've felt more violated than this; the friend of mine who worked a foot party in college was mostly bemused about it.)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a very long movie, but even so, and even for as characteristically baroque as Tarantino's style is—scenes are supersized and Leonian, distended with tension-ratcheting monologues, jazzed up with onscreen text or inserts of different genre-signifying film stock, interrupted with cheeky voiceover or glib cutaways or extensive backstory-sketching nested flashbacks—not much happens, to an even greater extent than in the high-water mark for Tarantino's digressive hangout cinema, the mellow and melancholy Jackie Brown. Scenes rarely go in any obvious direction: when Tate is in that movie theater, with her feet up, she's watching one of her own pictures, the creaky Dean Martin spy farce The Wrecking Crew. She introduces herself when she buys a ticket, and poses for a snap by the poster. She's not humiliated, or triumphant; she isn't made uncomfortable or inspired by any major-key interaction with the public. She just… watches the movie, notices and responds along with the audience, as flickers of insecurity, second-guessing, memories, pride, surprise and gratitude pass across her face. It's a great performance by Margot Robbie—playing a historical person whose impending, awful death dominates our understanding of her, she has the confidence to let Sharon Tate come to her rather than going looking for a big story to tell, by being present and trusting in the smallest, least consequential of half-formed impressions.
Tarantino lives and works in Hollywood—this is his life, watching movies with people, driving down freeways with the radio playing, consuming media practically ambiently. He displays here a laidback sensitivity to the microbehaviors of people engrossed in producing or consuming art, and doesn't feel a need to goose the story by manufacturing crises. It's just guys being dudes when Cliff and Rick chuck back a six-pack and watch one of his guest spots, laughing and talking shop and talking to the screen and having a grand old time.
The two of them are a sweetly balanced hot-cool combo; DiCaprio's charisma is high-wattage, and Pitt's is low-maintenance. Carrying what dramatic load there is in his furrowed brow and wet face, chugging a margarita straight from the blender, DiCaprio is always on, like he always is; Rick is one of DiCaprio's avatars of excess, of overextended appetites and emotions matched by max-effort actorly exertions. Pitt gives a preternaturally relaxed performance in the vein of Dalton's costars, and reminiscent of the immortal Robert Forster in Jackie Brown. (Pitt also does some interior, efficient yet broad and uproarious comedy when, late in the movie, Cliff trips balls.) Cliff is the kind of character, like Forster's Max Cherry, who doesn't rush, takes the time to size everyone up, and seems equally a model of manly competence and a near-tragic loner, because he knows exactly how far he can stick his neck out, in love or combat, before he's in danger of being made a fool of. Together, the two of them have a transparently codependent relationship that Tarantino sentimentalizes as much as anything else in the movie.
For as much as Tarantino establishes a contrast between Tate on one side of the hedge, and Rick and Cliff on the other, he sees them as equally vulnerable, in different ways. In his past few films, Tarantino has concocted increasingly puerile revenge scenarios taking on rape and violence against women (Death Proof), Nazis (Inglorious Basterds) and the institution of slavery (Django Unchained). The peril of random violence is everywhere in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it's the cloud the movie lives under, but Tarantino's historical intervention is, ultimately, to rescue his characters from obsolescence.