Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s abiding passion – and major subject matter – has been the movies he grew up watching, augmented by TV and music of the same era, scrambled into a switching-channels-at-random pop culture melange which functions as a guide to the inside of his head but also to a dream of America that’s distinct from the American dream. Here, with a title that evokes Sergio Leone’s American trilogy, he conjures up the media landscape of Los Angeles in 1969, to the extent of filling the frame (and soundtrack) the way artist Jack Davis did (whose style is pastiched on mock posters and a MAD Magazine cover) to create a montage of that year … with celebs of the period played by contemporary faces that sort of match (Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Rumer Willis as Joanna Pettet, Rachel Redleaf as Mama Cass), posters and marquees for real movies and invented ones slotted into real filmographies, TV show excerpts, cars, radio ads, product packaging, fashions (lots of shots of boots), attitudes, hairstyles and trivia.
Fifty years is long enough for a year to be mythologised and misrembered in the creation of a genre – as proved by the Western. So, just as Inglourious Basterds was about the imagined WWII, not the real one – this is as much a wishful thinking version of the year of the Manson Murders and the Moon Landing as a recreation. Tarantino’s leads are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV star who hasn’t quite made it in the movies and is on the slide, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt double/fixer/handyman/tagalong – Rick seems to exploit Cliff, who drives his boss around (after one drunk driving bust too many) and fixes his TV aerial, but it emerges that there’s an incident in Cliff’s past (involving his wife, played by Rebecca Gayheart) which has rendered him near-unemployable. Rick’s Hollywood home is on Cielo Drive, just by the gate of the residence – soon to become infamous – where a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) lives mostly without husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) but with an entourage that includes hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).
Rick is too consumed with drinking and his career woes to notice – he’s cast as the bad guy in the fake pilot for the real TV show Lancer, due to get ass-whipped by James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) – but Cliff has started to clock the Family’s leggy, grungy hippie chicks dumpster-diving and hitch-hiking, and is wary of the scene up at the Spahn Ranch, where blind George Spahn (Bruce Dern) seems to be a sex slave of junior medusa Squeaky Fromme (Elle Fanning). Manson (Damon Herriman) slinks on in one scene – and, yet again, someone must be getting royalties for the use of a Manson-penned song on the soundtrack – that happens to overlap with the clutch of recent films on the subject (Charlie Says, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Wolves at the Door). It’s a long, episodic, discursive film – like previous Once Upon a Time in … movies – and has its own eight-month ellipsis in the middle as an agent (Al Pacino) persuades Rick to go to Italy and star in the kind of films Tarantino especially loves.
There’s a fantastical thread to build up Cliff’s near-superhuman skills – in a scene sure to prove controversial, he takes on Bruce Lee and does not get his caucasian ass handed to him – and set up a climax (like El Cid) that rides off the pages of history and into the books of legend. Tarantino’s love of stuff is infectious, and only he could stage a whole scene in which Margot Robbie goes to a movie-house and cheerfully watches the real Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew with childish pleasure. That Tarantino wants to associate this point in Hollywood history with Dean Martin as Matt Helm rather than, say, Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy or Dennis Hopper on a motorcycle is a hip-to-be-square moment and, though Rick growing his hair and Cliff smoking an acid-laced cigarette are key elements, this takes a stand for Marlboro Man values against anything vaguely hippie.
It’s a rare Tarantino film without a significant African-American presence – Bruce Lee, quoting an actual interview, refers to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay – and it depicts the Manson clan as creepy spectres without referencing. Even the inspired music choices are whitebread – Jose Felciano’s ‘California Dreamin’, the Royal Guardsmen’s ‘Snoopy vs the Red Baron’, the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Twelve Thirty’. Paul Revere and the Raiders’ ‘Hungry’. It’s as interesting for what it leaves out as what it includes, but it’s always interesting.