Quentin's Hollywood, circa 1969

Tarantino's new film is a surprisingly breezy, elegiac chronicle of Los Angeles and its oddball residents

Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood. (Photo: Sony-Columbia Pictures)

Not everything ended in the year 1969. Not every sunshiny starlet died gruesomely in her own Cielo Drive villa at the hands of crazed hippies. And not every potbellied actor, fading cowboy and washed-up stunt double bit the Hollywood dust kicked up by the changing of the guard and the closing of that heady decade. Not, at least, in Quentin Tarantino's affectionate, good-humoured, and surprisingly elegiac film about Hollywood and its oddball residents.

  • Once Upon A Time …
  • In Hollywood
  • Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
  • Directed by Quentin Tarantino

As the title suggests, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood is a fairy tale, which means a sort-of history, or rather a re-imagination of a story and an era as one wishes to remember it, or wishes it had happened. Tarantino, doing either God's or the devil's business, knows that cinema is capable of writing its own version of history.

It will help a lot if you're familiar with the murder of the eight-month-pregnant Sharon Tate in her own house on Aug 9, 1969. It will help, too, if you know a few things about Charles Manson and his "family" of runaway girls, stray waifs and nubile hippies who commit that murder (and many others) before bolting to their desert ranch to wait for an apocalypse. Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood has fun with fact, fiction and fetishism (movie fetishism mostly, but also a fetishism for LA lore). And it's such an LA movie -- a "love letter" to that town of neon marquees and celebrities' villas, as many American writers have noted -- that those who didn't share that cultural specificity won't be able to appreciate the full range of melancholy and warmth with which Tarantino is adamant to fill in almost every frame.

No, I don't share that cultural specificity, but this is still a hugely enjoyable trip for anyone who cares about cinema and its people. Forget the blood rush of Kill Bill, the pulp-radicalism of Pulp Fiction, the claustrophobic cynicism of The Hateful Eight. Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood is a loose-jointed, pleasantly ambling story of friendship, stardom and the profound thrill and sadness of being in the movie business, or the Hollywood business.

The film runs at nearly 150 minutes, and it's only in the final reel that Tarantino lets loose his famed choreography of ultra-violence that, to some, disrupts the balmy disposition of the entire movie -- though by now we must have realised that the violence in Tarantino's films plays in that bizarre territory between hyperbolic and realistic, between irony and pure madness.

Real and fictitious figures orbit one another in Quentin's Hollywood, circa 1969. At the centre we have Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a has-been actor who was once fairly famous from a western television series and is now reduced to playing unrecognisable villains (Rick is a made-up character). Brad Pitt plays Rick's stunt-double Cliff Booth, also a made-up character, a right-hand man and fixer to his more famous buddy. For a good part of the film, we follow them around as Rick goes on set to brood about his dim future in Hollywood, while optimistic Cliff grins and takes everything that comes his way -- including sparring with Bruce Lee and a brush with Manson's hippie clan at the fabled (and notorious) Spahn Ranch.

These scenes seem long and random, and there's something of Richard Linklater in it; but that's exactly why they're entertaining. Tarantino has directed this film with the kind of relaxed virtuosity of a master who believes that his personal obsessions are contagious, and at the altar of movie-love we should feel blessed to be infected by it.

Rick lives in Cielo Drive above Hollywood. His new neighbours are Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The couple represents the new blood that is restocking the mid-century Hollywood players, as Rick and Cliff see themselves as sad remnants of the old heyday of westerns. Now, with Sharon Tate in the story, we make a mental leap to her horrific end (this isn't a spoiler since the Tate murder happened half a century ago and remains one of the best-known cases in the anthology of American true crime).

But what Tarantino has done here is quite touching: regardless of how Tate's life comes to an end, here she's a bright, happy-go-lucky upstart who walks up to the box office and introduces herself to the staff, in the hope of getting a reduced fare to a movie she's starred in (it was The Wrecking Crew). Once inside the cinema, Tate watches herself on the screen -- the magic of movies illuminates not only the audience but also the stars. Never a superstar when she was alive -- and she died tragically soon -- Tate has become one through Margot Robbie and Tarantino, in this once-upon-a-time Hollywood conjured up anew for her.

In fact, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood has many scenes of people watching movies or staring at the television. And the whole chunk of Rick's appearance in a TV series is shown to us as part of the main narrative. Tarantino also fills up marquees, billboards and posters with references to movies and TV series of that era, from FBI to Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti westerns, and so many others that you can pretend to know after consulting Google. Tarantino is a champion of film in its tangible, physical format, and of cinema-going as a social experience that is capable of changing the course of one's life (or of history, as in Inglourious Basterds); so it's natural that in a film about film people, he reminds us of the vintage pleasure of film and filmgoing -- not yet an anomaly but increasingly quaint to the generation growing up on a personal diet of streaming.

The ending, featuring a blowtorch and brutal head-crushing, invites a range of interpretation, on violence, on the counter-culture, on a nostalgic reaction to hang on to what is. But I don't mind that, or not so much. Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood doesn't show Tarantino at his most provoking or paradigm-shifting, but it shows him at his most personal. On that altar of movie-love, we have long been infected by his fever, and this time its manifest symptom, for better rather than worse, is joy.