Tarantino’s Hollywood love story true to form
Quentin Tarantino has gone from reinvented westerns to stretching slasher torture techniques a step behind exploitation, where a gasp shock at the “Hostel” comes close to “Mark of the Devil’s” grab the provided emergency cleanliness bag.
Alluring Leonardo DiCaprio, as Rick Dalton, former star of a western TV series, and Brad Pitt, his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth, would nearly guarantee a swift one-liner filled buddy hybrid comedy. Tarantino has Al Pacino, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry (RIP), Bruce Dern and Kurt Russell (among others).
Opening with cars, neon and familiar tunes, it’s a recall of “American Graffiti,” saluting not high school antics and graduation but 1969, a year of turpitude, transition and mounting revolution. Single-screen long-running flicks dominate Hollywood Boulevard as an occasional fast foot (Taco Bell) place creeps into the string of family-owned eateries. Television has passed through its western era as crime dramas (“The FBI,” “Mannix”) dominate. Former cowboys now play “heavies” or warble out a song on “Hullabaloo” as the white booted dancing teens smile.
Ultra wealthy hideaways are rising and flaming out star favorites. Times are changing – studio system dying; color TV booming; quiet and smoking, macho males puff nervously (with a brief foreshadowing glitch or two – see the sneaked in bare leg not yet power pump during pre-shoot horseplay and the 8-year-old female method performer, wonderfully played by Julia Butters, arguing about “actress” versus “actor”), and occasional mostly barefoot female hippie societal dropouts hang out at bus stops looking to peddle acid for 50 cents.
Enter rising star Sharon Tate, strolling blocks from downtown picking up a book for hubby Roman Polanski. Dark glasses, mini skirt and white boots, Margot Robbie stares at her picture advertising her new Dean Martin flick at a neighborhood movie house. Short a quarter, she convinces the manager to let her in for free. Robbie gets comfortable, laughs and pantomimes her performance oblivious to other moviegoers.
After a six month Italian spaghetti western stint, Rick and Cliff have a bittersweet homecoming. Rick’s replaced Cliff with a wife.
The filmography depicted may bring “The Man with No Name to mind,” but Tarantino’s film actually has Rick based on Burt Reynolds and Cliff on Reynolds’ stunt man Hal Needham. The western is a stand-in for “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Playing a near alcoholic, DiCaprio saunters around the backlot struggling to memorize his lines and occasionally softly sobbing. He’s hit or miss when the camera’s on. After losing a gig for decking Green Hornet’s “Kato” (martial arts trained Bruce Lee), he’s fired, leading to a drive around 69er L.A. and eventually picking up a 17-year-old Charles Manson follower. Watch for a gender behavior reversal. It’s Pitt’s character that expresses age or consent prudence following a potentially “mocking” scene in which he pulls off his shirt on a roof, potentially underscoring another male perk.
The script weaves a fictionalized encounter with Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and Manson on a former back lot. Of course, we know little about these TV studio slumming barefoot gals and their commune. Charlie flattens the Caddie’s tires and Cliff bloodies the cult leader when he refuses to “fix it.” This scene delivers an inkling of the alleged revenge home invasion which related to a devastating music producer turning Manson down.
Tarantino’s camera strays for a few extra seconds on the flicking neon light marquees, bright colored roadsters, bulky puffy headphones, vinyl records and other extinct icons. You won’t see a cell phone or computer in the entire flick. Couples frequent small restaurants for dinner or business deal making. Meanwhile, the director has compiled a solid retro musical score ranging from “Mrs. Robinson” to a more hard rockin’ “Brother Love’s Travelin’ Salvation Show” and “The Circle Game” (“Strawberry Statement”).
Considered an opus to the end of golden age glamour, the director, historians would assert, is about 10 years late. The film switch from black and white to all color occurred in the late 50s; color TV jolted the late 60s/70s. The sixties and seventies are generally regarded as post-classic – where out of the headlines relevancy push escapism for kids. The 60s were transitional as the studio system crumbled, partly due to over budgeted failed blockbusters, color TV stole more moviegoers, and the trickster scripts more and more faced competition with special effects and intimacy. Although mainstream had “experimented” with nudity (triggering G, PG, R and X ratings), it was Roger Corwin’s American International that drew youth with surfing and swimming cultural norms then brandished blood and naked bodies as a requisite for new filmmakers. His lucid corpuscle flowing monsters and horror remakes inserted cleavage, too.
Tarantino skirts the exploitation era and a sliver of hippie flower child free love (no bra but flimsy top ….). Pitt’s character lives near a Van Nuys drive-in but no visual of a “skin flick” on the giant screen or cuddling car based lovers. Stays clean too in an exterior shot of the adult Pussycat grindhouse.
Having purposefully scheduled the film’s opening near the 50th anniversary of the Manson Massacres, Tarantino has fun blending fact and fiction into a new vision of that day in history. He still inserts a few bloody sequences, all which advance the plot that can shift from tensely dramatic to intentionally silly while maintaining acting personas. It’s a skillful, blissful sojourn where seismic changes and cultural wreckage lazily flow. One writer labels it a violent blast of “terminal audacity” while another scores a slam dunk stating that by brazenly manipulating history he’s baked a perfect “bagel” – part satire, part bear hug, part fictional bromance.
Another surprise – don’t leave your seats when the end credits roll. Not sci-fi or superhero, you can still toss a wicked credit crawl insert.