There’s a point in every Quentin Tarantino film where things take a turn for the ultra-violent, and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is no different.
Until the creeps of the Manson Family skulk their way up Benedict Canyon’s Cielo Drive, though, the screen is bathed in the warm glow generated by the camaraderie between B-movie actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio at his loosest, funniest best) and his driver/stunt double/dogsbody, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt putting a sly winking spin on a Marlboro Man with a mythologically shady past).
The sunniest character in the entire film, though, is actress Sharon Tate (a radiant Margot Robbie). Tarantino could have focused on the more glamorous characters she played in Valley of the Dolls or The Fearless Vampire Killers, the horror comedy she made with her husband, Roman Polanski. Instead he chooses to remember her as a woman who took pride in her comedic skills, particularly the physical stunts she performed in The Wrecking Crew. (He shows her working on her high kicks with fight choreographer Bruce Lee).
While Dalton frets about his diminishing status in Tinseltown, his next door neighbor, Tate, can’t believe her good fortune. Her movies might not be the biggest or the best, but she’s just happy to be in the mix. In reality, I doubt she was that casual about her career (what actor is?), but Tarantino’s intentions are clear. On February 8, 1969, when the film begins, Sharon Tate was alive and well. Six months later, she was gone. There will always be those who know her better for the way she died than for the way she lived; Once Upon a Time… flips that script.
As he’s done so often in the past, Tarantino uses music to express a woman’s joie de vivre. There’s Tate dancing with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass at the Playboy Mansion or bopping around the house to Paul Revere and the Raiders. There are three Mamas and the Papas songs on the So Cal-heavy soundtrack, “Straight Shooter,” "Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)," and “Safe in My Garden,” plus covers of “California Dreamin’” by José Feliciano and Bobby Womack.
The Paul Revere songs (“Good Thing,” “Hungry,” and “Kicks”) don’t just fit the era, they also play a stealth narrative role, since Terry Melcher produced all three of them. Though the script only mentions Melcher in passing, it’s unlikely Charles Manson would have set his murderous sights on Cielo Drive if the producer hadn’t declined to sign him. After Melcher moved out of his Cielo rental, the property owner leased it to Tate and Polanski, and the rest is Helter Skelter history.
Unlike American Psycho director Mary Harron, who depicted Melcher’s trip to the Spahn Ranch to hear Manson sing a few songs in her Family film Charlie Says (released this spring to a disappointing lack of attention), Tarantino isn’t interested in any of that. When Tate dances to Paul Revere and the Raiders, that’s all we see: a woman dancing. If his cheery take on the actress has a lot of fantasy in it, that fairytale aspect is right there in the title: “Once Upon a Time…”
There are plenty of precedents for Tate’s music-love in Tarantino’s filmography. She’s prefigured by Uma Thurman’s failed TV actress, Mia Wallace, in Pulp Fiction. He introduces her while Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” is spinning on the turntable. (Granted, the coke she Hoovers up her nose may have something to do with her good spirits). At Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the ’50s-themed eatery where Mia drags John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, she makes all manner of music references, calling him “daddy-o” and pegging him for “an Elvis man.”
She’s the real music lover in this scenario. Vincent, her husband’s heroin-addicted henchman, is just along for the ride. He can tell the difference between Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren, and she can’t (it’s just like Tarantino to give the man the superior cinematic knowledge), but when the diner’s twist contest begins, the balance of power reverts to Mia. “I wanna dance. I wanna win. I want that trophy,” she states with conviction, and you know she’s gonna get it. A large part of the reason the scene, set to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” became an instant classic: Thurman wasn’t known for her dancing skills, while Travolta had come to define entire genres through his moves in Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy. Here, though, it’s the man who’s hesitant to get on the dancefloor, until he steps on to it and, as in the Technicolor musicals of yore, proves a natural.
After they get back to her place, Mia puts on Urge Overkill’s oleaginous, lounge-lizard version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” (Tarantino must be a Neil Diamond fan, because he uses “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” in Once Upon a Time…). While Vincent is in the bathroom, she dances herself to exhaustion, notably changing the line “you’ll need a man” to “you’ll need a woman.” Once she discovers her caretaker’s heroin stash, though, the good times come to an end. Music can’t save a life in a Tarantino film, but it can provide a respite—especially for his female characters—before the inevitable guns, knives, hatchets, hammers, swords, and flamethrowers enter the picture. When he switches to the other, male-oriented storylines, his characters lose all interest in music. The hip, finger-snapping tunes keep coming, but they’re just narrative-propelling noise. The men don’t engage with it the way Mia and Sharon do.
Just as Travolta’s musical past informs our impression of Vincent Vega, Pam Grier’s blaxploitation past informs our impression of Jackie Brown’s title character. Grier doesn’t just bring her formidable physicality to the role, a characteristic that allowed her to make her mark in a hyper-masculine genre, but the musical associations conjured up by it, specifically soul and funk. Tarantino introduces his flight attendant anti-heroine gliding through LAX to the lush, yet earthy strains of Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street,” a song from Barry Shear’s 1972 Harlem noir starring the equally formidable Yaphet Kotto.
At first, Samuel L. Jackson’s gun runner, Cordell, appears to be the film’s biggest music fan since he’s got a car filled with Shuggie Otis, Meters, and Johnny Cash tapes, but Grier actually landed a song on the soundtrack. When Jackie ends up in jail for possession, the actress’s own, endearingly adenoidal, proto-hip-hop “Long Time Woman” plays in the background.
Tarantino continues to use music to define her. The minute bail bondsman Max Cherry (an unbelievably fine Robert Forster) sees Jackie for the first time, Bloodstone’s falsetto ballad “Natural High” begins to play, and you know he’s a goner. Then, when he stops by her apartment, he finds that it’s loaded with records. “You never got into the whole CD revolution?” he asks. “I’ve invested too much time and money in my albums,” she explains while placing the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” on the turntable. Max, 56, laments that more “new stuff” isn’t available on vinyl. “I don’t get new stuff that often,” says Jackie, 44.
Watching Jackie Brown again for the first time in years, I felt my heart skip a beat when they talked about the song. It skipped again when Max walks into a record store to buy The Delfonics on tape. Not to give too much away, but the film ends with Jackie singing along to a certain song in her car. As middle-aged movie romances go: Max and Jackie are my #1 with a bullet.
It’s not that the men in Tarantino’s films don’t enjoy music. Rick Dalton, warbling along to the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” while drunk on margaritas, is definitely enjoying himself. It’s that the director uses music more explicitly to define women and to allow them to define themselves through it. You could argue that it’s because they aren’t as well written, and you wouldn’t be half-wrong, though Jackie Brown stands as the one indisputable exception to that claim.
The difference with Sharon Tate, aside from the fact that (unlike Rick and Cliff) she was a real person, is that her music-love in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is uncomplicated by drugs or crime. It’s neither an expression of femininity nor feminism, but rather a pure expression of joy, a rarity in this filmmaker’s canon, and something that took him decades to get around to. As A.O. Scott notes in his New York Times review, “Sharon, who is barefoot, pregnant or both in most of her scenes, is not so much a symbol of innocence or glamour as an emblem of normalcy.” And that makes the senselessness of her death ache all the more.