The ninth film from the unique talent that is Quentin Tarantino is perhaps his most topical, even though it’s set in 1969.
It’s not quite based on a true story, though real-life characters feature throughout – and the final section deals with perhaps the most infamous murders in Hollywood history.
It was a completely different time, and Once Upon A Time… is Tarantino’s homage and tribute (of sorts) to that time, but with his signature quirks (movie and TV shows-within-the-movie, non-sequiturs, random voiceovers, cutaways, flashbacks and flash forwards and so on. And a long running time).
Set in early 1969, Once Upon A Time… is a series of meandering vignettes rather than a strongly-connected and fast-moving story.
We initially meet Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stunt double/Man Friday Cliff Booth (Pitt) on the set of Dalton’s latest cheesy TV show.
Dalton is close to being a washed-up, drunken has-been (actually, he’s already one), but he’s incredulous when smooth producer Marvin Schwarz (Pacino) suggests he spend time in Italy making a spaghetti western or two. Hey, at least he’ll get top billing.
Living next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills is hotshot Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his gorgeous young bride and up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Robbie).
The neighbors don’t meet until much later – many months later in fact – and in the meantime we sort of follow both their stories. Tate shops, hangs with her friends and sneaks into movies that she’s in, while Dalton struggles to get it together.
Booth in fact has more of an adventure, and in many ways, this is his movie.
Despite his time on movie sets and a scene where he more than holds his own again a boastful Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), he’s really a hanger-on. Invisible and ignored he’s behind the scenes – except that he’s supposed to have killed his wife.
Anyway, Booth gives a ride to Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), one of the era’s ubiquitous flower child girls and they end up at Spahn Ranch, a hangout for a lot of these girls and their mysterious leader “Charlie”.
In one of the best sequences, Cliff insists on seeing the ranch owner George (Bruce Dern), to ask him if he’s happy about all these hippies taking over his place. Suddenly the group turns from a bunch of giggly, come-hither girls to a nasty mob, complete with the odd guy like Tex (Austin Butler) seemingly ready to defend them all.
Meanwhile Dalton finally cuts down on the booze and gets a fresh shot at a western – and it looks like he’s going to be a hit as the show’s grimacing villain. He takes the jobs in Italy too, comes back to L.A. with a young, hot actress wife, and perhaps it’s time for he and Cliff to say goodbye.
They plan once last crazy night together at Cielo Drive, but then some uninvited guests come around…
Hugely entertaining and defined by its manic attention to detail and deep supporting cast (spot the famous actor, some of whom get no or few lines!), this film takes you right back to the late 1960s and draws perhaps one of the best performances out of DiCaprio and especially Pitt, two actors who could have been said to be phoning it in in recent times, happily to let their name to do the hard work.
As ever it’s disappointing that female characters barely feature (Robbie/Tate seems little more than a beautiful but bopping airhead as do most of the women here, when they’re not getting beaten to a pulp).
There are probably the guts of an hour that could have been cut as well, so who knows what extras there were – maybe we’ll see them on the DVD release?
For now though, take a trip back in time and imagine what could have been.