From the moment the grisly Manson murders occurred in March 1969, they took on metaphoric significance. A band of hippie nobodies living in Los Angeles as a cult in the thrall of a satanic nutcase, the Manson gang viciously maimed and murdered starlet Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of then-hot director Roman Polanski, and four guests at her house. With counterculture epithets such as “pig” smeared on walls in blood, the attack seemed aimed at the hierarchies of Hollywood itself. “Don’t worry, Barbra,” Streisand’s agent allegedly reassured her. “They’re not after stars. They’re only killing featured players.”
Quentin Tarantino was barely six years old at the time, a poor kid in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. The budding movie geek and cinematic storyteller extraordinaire was several miles from the casually posh home on Cielo Drive that Tate and Polanski were renting, but it may as well have been halfway around the world. Now, 50 years later, those worlds have collided in Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a work of epic length (two hours and 41 minutes) and restrained intensity that’s now available for streaming and on disk. It lacks much of Tarantino’s signature rococo dialogue, and, surprisingly, considering the subject at hand, his usual cartoonish bloodbaths, except at the very end. That conclusion is such a clever twist on history, it gives a sensationally amoral crime some story logic. Indeed, the movie is genuinely entertaining, enlightening, and gently satirical, and it ranks among Tarantino’s best.
The story is centered on a fictional stunt man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who works regularly as a stand-in for a fictional star in decline, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Booth lives next door to Tate (Margot Robbie) on Cielo Drive. He also knows old and blind George Spahn (Bruce Dern), whose ranch, which hosted many western location shoots, was home to the Manson gang.
The performances are full of charm and verisimilitude, from the Tarantino-esque cameos (Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Rumer Willis, James Remar, the late Luke Perry) to the leads — Pitt, DiCaprio, and Robbie — who serve as beautiful guides to the unreal realities of SoCal in the late ’60s. Pitt gives Booth the taciturn masculinity of the Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood’s character in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and, as indicated by the “once upon a time” title, the script has a Leone-like structure without the operatic sound and fury. Booth is the only one who actually suspects trouble from the Manson crew, and, in defying them, he’s prepared and able. As Booth, Pitt carries the film and does it brilliantly.
As in Leone’s “once upon a time” epics, Tarantino’s film focuses on a historical period of transition — in this case, the movie industry as it evolved from the almost feudal studio system to the New Hollywood of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the lunatics (i.e., the talent) took over the asylum. This may be ancient history to millennials and those raised on Star Wars — and, in fact, it was the commercial knockout punch of Star Wars in 1977, followed by the disastrous Heaven’s Gate in 1978, that finally put the kibosh on the New Hollywood. But to those of us who lived through the heyday of the counterculture, Tarantino’s semi-innocent, semi-ironic Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood recalls the era through the magic lens of art.
A different ’70s phenomenon gets an insightful look-see in Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, a new documentary now available on video and online by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the men behind The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet, Howl, and Lovelace. Epstein and Friedman give Ronstadt the straightforward biographical treatment, but the film is revelatory nonetheless.
Most people remember Ronstadt for her pop-rock hits and her huge and exquisite voice, as the film’s title would suggest. But she was also insistently independent, with a self-guided career — a spectacularly successful one at that, in a crushingly misogynist and male-dominated industry. She cut albums of show tunes and standards that went platinum and explored her Latino roots (she grew up on a ranch in Tucson, Ariz.), despite warnings that it would kill her career. When Parkinson’s disease took its toll on her voice, she immediately retired. Instead of the hot rock chick who sang torch songs, dated Jerry Brown, Jim Carrey, and George Lucas, and never married, we see an ambitious artist in full control of her gift. The movie is the kind of portrait such a figure deserves — more cheers than tears, and due respect.
The Polish film Cold War, released last year and Oscar-nominated, is now available on Blu-ray/DVD and online. A historical survey of sorts, the movie is a doomed love story told episodically in Poland and France during the early years of the Cold War, from the late ’40s to the ’60s. It’s written and directed by the superlatively talented Pawel Pawlikowski, whose last film, Ida, about a novice Polish nun who discovers her Jewish roots and loses faith, won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Both were shot in haunting black and white, which evokes the bygone era and some of its cinematic greats, such as Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds). Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland but spent most of his life in Britain (where he directed the poignant lesbian drama A Summer of Love, with Emily Blunt), based Cold War loosely on his parents, who split and rejoined across international borders.
In the movie, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) when he auditions her for a folk-music and dance troupe. They are impetuous artists obsessively attracted to each other, and when the movie catches them at discrete moments — during a plan to defect from Poland, at a jazz club in France with different mates, back in Poland with Wiktor imprisoned — they keep repeating the realization that they can’t live with or without each other. This tragic sense of fate is a reflection of their Polish national identity, which has been decimated by merciless bombing and genocidal invaders throughout the 20th century. Cold War is coolly observed for such a passionate tale, and the lapses in time have a distancing effect as well. But the overwhelming feeling it evokes is the hopelessness of ever being true to oneself.