By CORY WOODROOF
If you ever wondered about how much filmmaker Quentin Tarantino loves Hollywood, its many movies, its history and its highs, look at the way he romanticizes the lighting of a Taco Bell logo.
It’s not just any Taco Bell logo, of course, but one strewn among the many fluorescent welcomes that adorn his 1969 La La Land. In one sequence of his latest venture, the director pops on a string of signs as they slowly wake up to dress the Los Angeles skyline.
It’s reminiscent of those movie scenes where people drive down the Vegas strip and have all the flashing lights overwhelm them in gaudy, alluring superimpositions, or like in Singin’ in the Rain’s movie-within-a-movie, where Broadway’s bright, grand marquees awestruck our wannabe actor. When all the lights hit you at once, you’re transfixed by something bigger than you, that could make and break you; the electric roll of the dice, the gospel swell that puts you on your knees in reverence and awe.
If anything ties these moments together, it’s love; the aching skyrocket kind you feel when you fall in love for the first time or see that one movie that changes the way you view them. To Tarantino, the Hollywood of yesterday still carries that aura, that fleeting feeling of what he, and so, so many others, have felt as a child when those lights would eventually go down and the movie would begin.
Ryan Gosling sang about the “City of Stars” in La Lan Land; Tarantino lets his stars shine all across the world he grew to love as a child. If the director’s entire filmography is a love letter to the cinema that made him, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is all at once its period, its exclamation point, its question mark and its ellipsis.
If you poll any number of young moviegoers, you’re not likely to find many who know who Sharon Tate is. If anything, she’s primarily remembered as one of the Manson murder victims, a horrifying, heinous act that forever altered the way people viewed Hollywood. It was a time where even the silver screen couldn’t escape the horrors that crept into the headlines and nightly news broadcasts.
Hollywood changed the night Tate lost her life to such senseless, selfish violence, and if anything, Tarantino’s latest movie wishes to, even more so than love the past, reclaim and avenge it. Settled in foundation with Margot Robbie’s royal, stirring portrayal of Tate, the filmmaker fights vigorously to make sure the generations that are to come don’t forget who she was and what could’ve been. In a world where history is truly becoming more of a mystery, Tarantino nobly won’t let Tate’s star fade out, even if the world she was in eventually will.
The filmmaker also plays an open game of introspection as he hinges a wagon onto Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. Once a stern, square-jawed T.V. serial lawman, Dalton’s career has careened into bit parts on likeminded shows and experimental variety hours. His agent gives him an offer to go out to Rome and star in one of the early spaghetti westerns, which Dalton likens to a one-way ticket to the graveyard.
His best pal and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, to complete the trifecta of brazen star power) is just fine driving his buddy around Los Angeles, occasionally taking on Dalton’s punches and falls for hire. If Dalton is a man running from his future, Booth is one who’s already embraced his own. Both men, though, show uneasiness about where the world is headed. It also should be mentioned that Dalton (and sometimes Booth) live next door to Tate on the now-solemn Cielo Drive. Their three stories collide eventually, and it’s a moment tied directly into the movie’s, and its director’s, soul. After all, it’s Booth who, in the film, first uncovers the Manson monsters lurking in Hollywood’s underbelly, and who is the audience’s conduit into how that morose history plays into the film’s vision.
DiCaprio sulks and wheezes through Dalton like a melting candle with a chip on its shoulder. He coughs down cigarettes, drinks way too much, self-loathes, and, on occasion, reminds everyone on set through his small, often-villainous roles, that, despite the hubbub, he’s still got it. Pitt, on the other hand, glides through Tarantino’s Hollywood with a smirk and a saunter. He’s rugged and outdated, but also formidable in his own right. Tarantino has always known how to tap into Pitt’s more sidewinded charms, and lets the A-lister play with a little dirt in his fingernails and blood on his chin. It’s one of the director’s most interesting characters in a while, and a career highlight for Pitt.
Tarantino is a director with a process squarely against where the world of cinema is going, and it’s easy to find why he found Dalton and Booth to be such a fascinating characters to explore. They’re less models of depth than wide canvases for the director’s own insecurities and longings. Tarantino the director found much more success than Dalton the actor or Booth the stuntman, with the former destined to be regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation and the latter lucky to land cigarette commercials and small-time stung gigs. But nevertheless, the days of Tarantino films are drawing near, and the leads serve as a striking duality as to how the director feels about it.
Hollywood looks like it’ll be a relative hit, but it’s no Avengers. Moviegoers don’t flock out to see the stars like they used to, and they certainly don’t always embrace the films that made Tarantino who he is. The filmmaker has always been vocal about wanting to limit his filmography with ten definitive works, a number he’s closer to reaching. He’s also one of the last in the industry to care about shooting on actual film, and in distributing said films on 35-and-70-millimeter projection reels. His way of doing things is sliding away, and one day, so will the studios who are willing to foot his large production bills.
This film is his way of looking inward and acknowledging his own limitations and realistic possibilities for the future, as it is him lamenting on what he and so many film fans are losing as the medium changes and adapts for new technology and a new audience. That one scene of the romantic Hollywood lights is set to The Rolling Stones’ sting-of-a-song “Out of Time,” which feels at once like a cruel bit of irony and an urgent plea. Tarantino knows the clock is about to strike midnight on his Hollywood, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t get in one last dance and invite us to join in and keep the music going.
In the movie, he doesn’t cut corners on what he does best: he rides fast with Booth through the L.A. streets as latter day radio hits blare in the background. He enshrines Tate’s life and memory as she dances with friends and gets to watch an audience enjoy one of her comedic performances at a local theater. He celebrates with Dalton as he nails that gnarly threat to the western’s weekly hero in one take.
It might be closing time in Tarantino’s Hollywood, but he just wants to make sure we leave the lights on. If Hollywood gives studios the reassurance that movies like this still matter, maybe they’ll still glow.
‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’ is now playing at Franklin’s AMC Thoroughbred 20 and on 35mm film at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater.