Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” | photo: Andrew Cooper, Columbia Pictures
Delirious, funny, shocking, exhilarating, beautifully crafted around movie lore and history, blending fiction with reality, brimming with pop culture detail and an idiosyncratic soundtrack that takes you to another time and another Hollywood. You can not remain indifferent to Quentin Tarantino’s black comedy crazy bravura and auteurist excursion. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is ultimately about what it is like to live and die in L.A., by way of Tarantino’s liberal take on history and freeing visionary mind.
“It is probably my most personal. I think of it like my memory piece. Alfonso [Cuarón] had Roma and Mexico City, 1970. I had L.A. and 1969. This is the year that formed me. I was six years old then. This is my world. And this is my love letter to L.A.,” the writer-director said in an interview for Esquire magazine.
Here is what I liked so much about the film.
The Hollywood in my mind
The Hollywood I would have loved to see is not the Golden Era Hollywood, nor the modern day Hollywood, but that very Hollywood depicted in this film. A Hollywood trying to make peace with itself and move forward, a Hollywood that reflects the changes taking place in those times, in America and in the film industry, a time of changing identities and manhood perceptions, a time of decline for the old studio system and of rise of the independent cinema. But also a Hollywood that for sure is not just one of reality, but one of Tarantino’s imagination as well. And I find that even more fascinating. Another incredible thing about this Hollywood is that the two main characters, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, are themselves voyeurs of the glamour of Hollywood. They are like you and me. Even Rick. He may be working there, and even be living there, but he isn’t living the high life. He is mesmerised by it, but keeps it real, he’s there to do his job, and his job is acting, not being a star.
The L.A. light
I’ve never been to L.A., but that’s how imagine the L.A. light. The bright, desert light of Los Angeles, considered magical by some directors, unforgiving by others, or both. And that L.A. light is a character in itself in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Robert Richardson was the cinematographer, a regular collaborator of Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. And that light, at least the way I see it, whatever the story, but even more so in this case, seems to always remind you, even if it’s just in the back of your head, of the most notorious light, the dream-effect and disillusioned limelight of Hollywood.
They are still making movies
Quentin Tarantino is one of the last purveyors of movie making. So how about celebrating it? He loves cinema. He shows that artistic freedom is still possible, that you can still think in terms of making movies just for yourself, that he puts every thought and every sense and every emotion into making a film, that, yes, he can do what he likes and say what he likes – it’s his story. And he transports you to another time with the kind of film that requires the luxury of taking the time to watch at the cinema, as one should. That allows you to lose yourself in the story and watch it unfold on the big screen. And just see where it goes. Nothing else matters. Did I mention I’ve seen it three times?
Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” | photo: Andrew Cooper, Columbia Pictures
Less Is More
Tarantino somehow found a very original, very Tarantino-style way to pay homage to Sharon Tate. In reality, Sharon Tate came to be defined by her tragic death. Quentin stayed away from that by showing her living and enjoying her everyday life – he doesn’t even show her on the set shooting a film, but sends her to the cinema as a spectator to watch a film she had played in (The Wrecking Crew, 1969, co-starring Dean Martin). And it is this way in which he depicts her, through scarce dialogue and infused with optimism, joy and a luminous aura, that conveys an angelic, surreal creature, looming over the entire film.
In awe with the details
You always expect the best from the production design of a Tarantino film, but it is exactly because Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is set where it is set and the time it is set in that you become even more aware of every prop and neon sign. Posters-within-the-film, some sourced from the director’s impressive personal collection, some commissioned to the renowned Renato Casaro, vintage cars, the recreation of entire parts of Hollywood Blvd. and other cultural fixtures, bookstores, shops and bars. Production designer was Barbara Ling, and together with supervising art director Richard Johnson, set decorator Nancy Haigh, and supervising location manager Richard Schuler, they recreated a portrait of the 1960s you don’t get to see too often in movies.
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, 2019 | photo: Andrew Cooper, Columbia Pictures
The film is not only a feast for your eyes, but for your ears, too. Of course you expect that from Tarantino, but in this film in particular you just want to stand up and step right into the story (and maybe even start weaving your own storyline in parallel). Every time a car starts, the music starts blasting from the radio. It was the 1960s. Music was very much part of the culture, and there was a car-based culture, and music was mainly listened to on the radio in the car. Remember American Graffitti, how everything seemed to be happening around a car? Tarantino brilliantly captures that feeling, that mood, too. I defy you to resist jumping on your feet and dancing on The Buchanan Brothers’ Son of a Lovin’ Man, or stop thinking “What if? What if Sharon Tate’s fate had been different?” when you hear the “enchanting, fable-ish”, as Quentin himself describes it, ending credits music, Miss Lily Langtry, by Maurice Jarre. But you know what? You’d better listen to Edith Bowman’s Soundtracking podcast where she talks to the filmmaker. Edith said that watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood felt like “I had Christmas with Quentin Tarantino and he bought me everything that I wanted for Christmas”. And, yes, you can also listen to our Spotify playlist with the entire movie soundtrack.
The way he acts and the way he plays comedy.
’60s style made timeless
When it comes to the costumes, there is a lot to take in, from Rick Dalton’s bellbottom-trousers-turtlenecks-golden-chains outfits (slightly out of fashion even for the late 1960s, thus keeping with his washed-up career), to Sharon Tate’s go-go boots, mini skirts and snake skin print coat (inspired by Sharon’s own personal style, but adding a fictitious element to it as well). But it is Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth who takes costume design beyond ‘60s fashion and transforms it into timeless style. He makes the Hawaiian shirt worn over a faded-out Champion logo white t-shirt tucked into his vintage blue jeans and cowboy buckle (and completed with suede moccasins, aviator sunglasses, leather bracelets and a gold Citizen 8110 Bullhead watch) look cool and current. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it also shows that he is keeping with the changing times, something Cliff is far more willing to accept than Rick. It’s both his attitude and clothes that projects this California cool which everybody seems to be eager to emulate after watching the film. He is the stuntman of an actor of the old guard in decline, he lives in a trailer next to a drive-in theatre, and has no perspective whatsoever. Yet, he is content with what life offers him, he lives in the moment, he is optimistic. And that confidence is a mighty powerful and stylish thing.
Margot Robbie in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” | photo: Andrew Cooper, Columbia Pictures