Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” is pretty much what one would expect from Tarantino rewriting 1960s history for his own art, much like he did with WW2 in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) or the Civil War in “Django Unchained” (2012). If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if real life, and real decades, got alternate endings, Tarantino is the man to go to. But what can be said about the end of the ’60s that hasn’t already been said? By 1968, peace and love were all the rage and it looked like the only place to go was down. And in 1969, that’s essentially what happened with the overcrowded chaos of Woodstock, the violence at Altamont, and the ten murders at the hands of the Manson cult.
In Tarantino’s version of 1969, though, everything is still euphoric and free-spirited (hence the “Once upon a time…” titling). And instead of coining a traditional historical period piece, our leads under Tarantino are fictional TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, who is 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 due to the fact that he’s viewed as a has-been and can only nab guest appearances on a few 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 Tarantino, plenty of stars are willing to sign up for a chance to work with him. He’s one of the most prolific and successful filmmakers of the past 25 years, which is probably why this film features the all-star cast of Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis, and Luke Perry, who appears in a posthumous cameo. Charlie Manson is portrayed 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 runtime. But unlike “Django” or “Hateful Eight” (2015), which feel almost sluggish by the end, “Hollywood” manages to fully keep our interest with scenes like the one where we see how an average TV scene is shot while Rick is struggling to remember a line, or most of the scenes between Cliff and Qualley’s “Pussycat.” The film is – surprisingly – the least graphic we’ve seen from Tarantino if we’re judging by the director’s oft-violent standards, and even more surprisingly, contains 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’ fave music groups, like the Rolling Stones and the Raiders, on the soundtrack.
There are a couple of scenes that veer closely to fanfiction territory, though, like 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). Yet on top of all 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.