'The times they are a-changing'. That’s one song that doesn’t appear in Tarantino’s new movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But it does fit the theme, as the 1960s shade into the 70s; and the 1950s disappear in the rear-view mirror of Rick Dalton’s film career.
Dalton (DiCaprio), fading star of TV’s Bounty Law, is still trying to cut it in movies. But spaghetti westerns are now where it’s at and it’s an ill fit. So too is the hippy culture spreading like a rash over Hollywood. With growing self-doubt, Dalton needs the supportive hand of his stunt-double, gofer and all-round friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) to make one last shot at becoming a bona fide Hollywood insider.
But it’s 1969 and the clean-cut violence and black and white justice of the 50s westerns is about to crash into the real-life death and disorder represented by the Manson family cult. Living next door to starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), wife of upcoming director Roman Polanski, may seem cool to Dalton. But the chills are multiplying.
Once Upon a Time... is Tarantino’s most thoughtful and humane movie. Jackie Brown is its closest match but that was a crime drama. Here, there’s no genre. Just a free-flowing meditation on change: a mid-life movie. As if Tarantino, once the doyen of the New Generation of maverick Hollywood, is using his own matured vantage point as a metaphor. Change comes to us all – in careers and culture. But, Tarantino seems to say, Hollywood doesn’t need to obey the laws of time or history. Just as it didn't with Pulp Fiction’s tricksy chronology, or Inglorious Basterds' fact-changing view of the Second World War.
DiCaprio is thoroughly convincing as the self-doubting Dalton. You feel his down-the-tubes despair as he struggles to remember lines, having binged on booze the night before. From TV hero to playing baddies. From clean cut star to wearing hair-extensions and tassels on his sleeves as a sop to the counter-culture audience he hates. “It’s official, old buddy, I’m a has-been”, Dalton bemoans; and Tarantino underpins his displacement, rolling out the Rolling Stones track 'Out of Time'.
Pitt, strong, silent and - once - pointlessly shirtless on a roof, is Dalton’s alter ego. Cool and unflappable, he’s at his ease play-fighting with Bruce Lee on a film lot and doing Dalton’s errands. He’s a good guy. Giving a lift to a young hippy girl, he refuses her advances, asking for ID: “Wow, I’ve never been asked for that”, she says. It’s a small but telling scene, nailing Cliff’s dependability as a buffer against the shifting moral culture. Yet rumour has it on the Hollywood lot that Booth has killed his wife Natalie by pushing her off a boat – an allusion Tarantino takes from a real-life Hollywood mystery.
Margot Robbie is joyful and radiant as Tate. She goes to see one of her own movies (The Wrecking Crew, a Dean Martin caper), delighted by the audience’s reaction to her small scenes. She has the optimism that Dalton hasn’t. She’s pregnant and her fame’s just taking off. It’s a role with hardly any dialogue but you can feel Tarantino’s love for Tate and for the burgeoning promise of her career. All the more poignant if you know the story of the Manson murders and the end of innocence that’s coming.
Once Upon a Time... is full of Tarantino’s typically chewy scenes. Pitt’s early-on encounter with the winsome but witchy Manson girls gets super tense when he visits the ranch to check on a friend. Tarantino’s sense of queasy danger is as palpable as ever. Pop culture riffs, and self-referential touches abound, as you’d expect. Songs play. Movies get mentioned. Even his own. Kurt Russell is a stunt arranger; his Once Upon a Time... wife is Zoe Bell, the actual Kiwi stuntwoman who doubled Uma Thurman in Kill Bill… and was Russell’s nemesis in Death Proof. She also orchestrates this movie's stunts.
It’s both the joy and limitation of Tarantino’s movies. At best, there’s the frisson of spotting the Easter eggs hidden in almost every scene. Like the fictional Red Apple cigarette brand that appears in almost all his films, including the end-of-credits here and the Cahuna Burgers chain from Pulp Fiction, seen on a billboard. At worst, it suggests a one-trick talent, a recycler of popular songs and films. Crucially, though, Once Upon a Time... breaks the cycle: it’s a much more meaningful and rewarding movie.
Yet it’s a loosely constructed one. A voice-over from Kurt Russell’s character appears once near the beginning and then joltingly reappears in the last 30 minutes. There’s much meandering across sun-drenched landscapes in angular cars. Hinting no doubt that the carefree, day-glow days are coming to an end; or flaunting the budget.
And so to the ending, as the trio of Manson murderers make their move: “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work”. Anyone unfamiliar with the real-life story will be ensnared by Tarantino’s screw-tight tension. But maybe it’s only Americans, for whom this is as much part of their culture as the Moors Murders are for us Brits, who’ll get the full impact. Suffice to say, it’s duly shocking, yet completely true to the characters.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a resolutely hopeful film, radiating the power of friendship. Pitt and DiCaprio are believably brilliant together, and their company alone makes the 160 minutes glide by. And while Sergio Leone used the ‘Once Upon a Time’ prefix for crueller fables, from westerns (‘…in the West’) to gangster films (‘..in America’), Tarantino brings the fairytale element back into the phrase: ultimately, his movie celebrates the myth that Hollywood can make the world feel, for a time, a better place. And, appropriately enough, this film does.