Watch this as soon as you can…
Blurring the lines between cinema and reality, Tarantino’s 9th (possibly penultimate) film is a glorious celebration of 1960s L.A. and Hollywood films from the same period. If Tarantino was attempting to capture the mood and feel of living in that decade in a film reel, then he is completely successful. If that vibe appeals to you, then you will love this movie, despite the fact the film has a very loose plot.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been criticised for having a very little plot or narrative. The film is mostly set in the day of a life of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who is struggling to come to terms with the fact he is a “has-been”, and his best friend and stuntman, Cliff Booth. draws you into a convincing and immersive world that. The film is essentially a hangout movie involving these two characters. Their bromance and banter are easily the film’s biggest draw- who cares if they are not involved in some carefully structured plot? The film also tracks Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she spends the day in L.A. too. Everything that happens is circumstantial. Events do not lead into the next one akin to a series of falling dominoes. It feels like Tarantino has gone back in time and recorded the events of a day in the life of these three characters. Sometimes it is absolutely hilarious (this film is easily Tarantino’s funniest), sometimes it is bittersweet and moving. Sometimes it is incredibly tense. It all depends on the particular event being shown at the time. What holds what is essentially a random series of vignettes together is the mood and atmosphere. It is the sense that Tarantino has recreated an authentic 1960s L.A., and that we, the viewer, have been granted special access.
Robbie Richardson’s cinematography is an essential part of this feeling. The film is stunning to look at. Richardson’s cinematography endows this film with summery hues and a natural brilliance. The sets are also impeccable. At times, it can be hard to believe that this is a recreation. This is a film with an impressive attention to detail. Everything from the posters on the wall to the songs on the radio just screams 1960s L.A. If you want to immerse yourself in this world, for reality to bleed into cinema and vice versa, then this is the film for you.
Tarantino is also as inventive, and is having as much fun, as ever with his directing, and this helps with erasing the lines between reality and cinema. The film smoothly transitions between the movie Rick Dalton is filming, and the real life world of the set, and then back again. This allows for a lot of humour when Rick forgets his lines. Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting is so compelling as both Rick and the characters he plays that you often forget you are watching a film within a film. When Rick suddenly forgets his lines and the illusion of cinema is broken by someone reading the script back to him, it is hilarious. Many of the scenes are recreations of old-style filmmaking, such as action sequences that remind one of films like The Italian Job and The Great Escape, or authentic black and white television interviews with the stars of the film. Sometimes a television is placed right in the centre of the frame and we just watch the film being played alongside the characters (Cliff Booth’s running commentary is as entertaining as the film itself). Even the old-style film posters are allowed to dominate some frames in the film, allowing the audience to explore them in all their rich colours and detail. The frames, tones and aspect ratios are constantly changing. Not only does this keep your eye interested, but it also helps with the immersion.
Two of the best scenes in the movie blur the lines between reality and cinema even further. Cliff Booth visits Spahn Ranch to find it overrun by squatting hippies (with the benefit of hindsight, we know these are the Mansons). He wants to see George, the owner of the ranch, but the Manson girls are reluctant. When he forces his way up to George’s house, Tarantino recreates a suspenseful western-style stand-off. It is incredibly tense. You are constantly left wondering what Cliff is going to find in that house, and whether he will get out alive or not. The fact that this scenes feels like it came from a western is another example of cinema and reality bleeding into one another. The film’s closing sequence is already controversial for its darkly comic tone and its historical revisionism. When you look at the bigger picture of what Tarantino is trying to do, you find it makes complete sense, though. Cinema and reality are merging throughout the film. Of course it ends with the most fanciful and fictional sequence. The Mansons are symbolic of a dark cloud of ominous change, what Rick Dalton has been fearing throughout the film. As they steadily approach the top of Cielo Drive, the expectation that something explosive is about to happen keeps one utterly captivated. The sequence does not follow history with any accuracy whatsoever, though. Cliff Booth saves the day in some of the most darkly comic violence of Tarantino’s career. It is complete fantasy. No one was really able to stop the Mansons murdering Sharon Tate and her friends. Tarantino takes liberty with historical accuracy because it is the natural culmination of the mixing of cinema and reality taking place throughout the film.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an ode to both 1960s L.A. and the films being made there at the time. In its quest to celebrate both, the lines between them blur and cease to matter. This allows for a visually immersive film that impresses with a lot of sensory detail. It also allows for a showcase in how to create mood and atmosphere. The film creates a feeling so strong and arresting that the plot matters very little. You will never lose interest in this ultimate fairy-tale of Hollywood.