Taking a page from Quentin Tarantino’s Instagram post this week imploring Cannes Film Festival audiences to keep the details of his competition film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood secret, Festival Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux did a highly unorthodox thing at the beginning of tonight’s world premiere gala screening. After conferring with Tarantino in the lobby for a few minutes, he came down and jumped onstage to tell the turnaway capacity crowd — in French, of course — to keep spoilers to themselves and not reveal key plot points. That is a very good idea because one of the great joys of this terrific, entertaining, funny, bittersweet, personal, movie-lover’s film is not knowing where it is going. Tarantino once again presents something completely unexpected, mixing together fiction and real events in ways that are meant to be discovered, not ruined. Do yourself a favor and don’t let anyone spoil it for you.
That said, I am going to have to think about how to review a film like this (which I will do in video and print at time of release on July 26), where so much of what I want to say, and what I want to praise, inevitably might give away the store. Let me just say, if you think you know what you are going to see, think again. Yes, the usual heavy doses of violence endemic to QT films are here, including one scene that had this very tony black-tie Cannes crowd cheering like they were in a grindhouse. At its heart it is a Butch and Sundance for a new generation, taking two superstars in their prime and pairing them dynamically for the first time.
Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as a fading TV Western star and his loyal stuntman/driver, respectively, get great roles and run with them. Pitt might never have been better, and DiCaprio continues a string of memorable screen performances with yet another one here. Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate equals them in every way. It all centers on the relationship between an actor and his stuntman, with DiCaprio’s character living on Cielo Drive — next door, as it turns out, to Sharon Tate. As everyone knows, she and others in the house were murdered brutally by the Manson family one night in August 1969. That event is lying beneath the surface for much of the 2-hour, 39-minute running time, but the real story belongs to Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Pitt), much like Burt Reynolds (who was to have played the one-scene role of George Spahn before he died, and his friend Bruce Dern took it) and stuntman-director Hal Needham or Steve McQueen and his stunt guy Bud Ekins. This is a real buddy movie set in the movie industry, and this pairing kills it by building on that premise and letting it take off in many different ways. Booth’s loyal dog deserves a shout-out here as well.
The other star here is Los Angeles. If ever there was a love letter to a city, it is this one, as Tarantino has crafted the town he grew up in circa 1969. The production design is an instant Oscar front-runner, most of it completely re-created from photos or memory. I am from L.A. and I can tell you that in that regard (and many others) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a keeper. There is one especially poignant sequence simply composed of various well known L.A. landmarks coming to life as their lights are turned on. Clearly this is the most personal film Tarantino has ever made, but his familiar touch is all over it. It is wickedly funny and surprisingly poignant. It is appropriately a return to the Tarantino of Pulp Fiction in some ways, the 1994 movie celebrating its Cannes Festival screening 25 years ago tonight. It went on to win the Palme d’Or; can history repeat itself?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also bittersweet and wistful in some ways; at least that is how I saw it, but you will have to judge on your own. The soundtrack is killer, as usual with QT films, and I love the American Graffiti –style use of KHJ Boss Radio throughout (I listened to it all the time). If you grew up in L.A., there are so many layers for you. If you didn’t it still works brilliantly. The best movies surprise us, move us, make us think and entertain all at the same time. This one does all of that. Much more to say, but the afterparty — where I hope to get more reaction — is soon to start.
TO BE CONTINUED …