By Megan Bianco
As he’s already done with World War II in Inglourious Basterds (2009) or the Civil War in Django Unchained (2012), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is pretty much exactly what you would expect from Quentin Tarantino re-writing 1960s history for his own art.
What can be said about the end of the ‘60s that hasn’t already been said? By 1968, peace and love were at an all-time high and it looked like the only place to go from there was down. And in 1969, that’s essentially what happened with the overcrowded chaos of Woodstock, the violence at Altamont and ten murders carried out by the Charles Manson cult.
But in Tarantino’s version of 1969, everything is still euphoric and free-spirited (hence the “once upon a time” titling). Instead of creating a traditional historical period piece, our leads are fictional TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio channeling his inner Clint Eastwood) and Rick’s friend and regular stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick’s on the verge of a midlife crisis over the fact that he’s now viewed as a has-been and can only nab guest appearances on TV series. Our female lead is the very real Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who is living it up with her buddies in Hollywood as the next big starlet.
Because it’s QT, everyone and their mother would gladly sign up for a chance to work with one of the most prolific and successful filmmakers for the past 25 years. The all-star cast of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood includes Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis and Luke Perry in a posthumous cameo. Charlie Manson is portrayed very briefly, but we primarily get familiar with his “family” members, played on screen by Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Lena Dunham, Maya Hawke and Dakota Fanning.
Like most of Tarantino’s movies, he overstays his welcome with the run time. But unlike Django or Hateful Eight (2015), which feel almost sluggish by the end, Hollywood manages to fully keep our interest. The best parts are when we get to see how an average TV scene is shot, with Rick struggling to remember a line, and the scenes with Cliff and Qualley’s “Pussycat” character.
The film is surprisingly the least violent by the director’s usual standards, and even more surprisingly has a lot of sentimentality. Though that could be attributed to the fact that he got to spend 150 minutes crafting a movie around his favorite period of film history. We get the suspected references to Roman Polanski, Terry Melcher, Dennis Wilson and plenty of the filmmakers’ favorite music groups, like the Rolling Stones and the Raiders, on the soundtrack.
There are a couple of scenes that veer closely into “fanfiction” territory, specifically a sequence that features Steve McQueen (portrayed by Lewis) explaining the history of the Jay Sebring-Tate-Polanski love triangle to Connie Stevens (portrayed by Dreama Walker). And the same is true of the whole third act, which, of course, I won’t spoil for anyone.
Yet despite all of this, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just straight-up funny. If you can handle some revisionist history for the sake of entertainment, this could be one of the better movies you see this summer.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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