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'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood': A 1969 Time Trip

Brad Pitt outdoes Leonardo DiCaprio in Tarantino's ode to the summer of Charles Manson

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours 39 minutes

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Bruce Dern

Director: Quentin Tarantino

En español | Quentin Tarantino's meditation on the 1969 Manson murder summer is fabulous — literally, it's a fable that transforms the actual characters into archetypes whose story he ingeniously weaves into the bromance of his fictional protagonists. Leonardo DiCaprio, 44, as Rick, is the former star of a Gunsmoke-like 1950s TV show who's now a hippie-hating has-been, and Brad Pitt, 55, as Cliff, is his stunt double, driver (after Rick's final DUI) and pal — “more than a friend and a little less than a wife."It has the brilliant, slow-burn style of 1969's Once Upon a Time in the West, a melancholy spaghetti-western homage to classic U.S. westerns. But while this film shares that elegiac tone, it's also very funny, and its violence is not remotely as upsetting as you'd expect.

If you remember 1969, zillions of killer tunes, vividly evocative period details and utterly stunning cinematography will make it come alive for you again. When Rick performs with the Hullabaloo dancers, their exuberantly buffoonish moves are choreographed by Shindig! choreographer Toni Basil, now 75. This movie is a time trip as meticulously packed with the actual past as Mad Men, but it also conveys what that show missed: what giddy, scary fun it was to be young in the ‘60s.

DiCaprio is in peak Oscar-magnet form, but Pitt steals the picture in his most exhilarating role since Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. His glorious Praxitelean abs are almost as impressive as in his Thelma and Louise debut. And Cliff's affable, unflappable attitude and offhand action-heroism perfectly balance Rick's sweaty, twitchy insecurity. Rick lives beyond his means on Cielo Drive, a paradise high atop the Hollywood Hills, hoping his next-door neighbors — Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) — will revive his career. Cliff is content sharing a trailer off in the desert with his beloved pit bull.

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Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) makes a cameo appearance, showing up (as he really did) at Tate's place in search of its former occupant, Doris Day's son Terry Melcher, who produced the Beach Boys and rejected Manson's demo album. So, vengeful Manson sent his murderous girls to Cielo Drive to scare Terry (who escaped the massacre but died young from the psychological trauma).

The tragedy haunts the story: on the soundtrack, Mick Jagger ominously sings, “Baby, you’re out of time.” But the film defines Tate by her life, not her fate. She parties at the Playboy mansion with Mama Cass Elliot (Rachel Redleaf) and Steve McQueen (a highly convincing Damian Lewis), dances ecstatically to Paul Revere and the Raiders (another Terry Melcher band) and triumphantly watches herself (footage of the real Tate) at a screening of Dean Martin's The Wrecking Crew.

There are more than a dozen glittering lapidary performances in small, gemlike parts. Al Pacino is Rick's agent, who wisely advises him to do a spaghetti western (as washed-up Rawhide star Clint Eastwood really did, and got rich and famous). Then there's Luke Perry, in his last role, as Rick's fellow TV gunslinger; Kurt Russell as Cliff's stuntman boss; Bruce Dern as George Spahn, whose ranch was a ‘50s western set invaded by Manson's family; Dakota Fanning as Manson's incredibly creepy minion (and later attempted Gerald Ford assassin) Squeaky Fromme, who pretended to be Spahn's girlfriend so he'd tolerate the invasion; Margaret Qualley as an underage Manson-girl hitchhiker who lures Cliff to the Spahn Ranch; and Julia Butters as an ambitious child costar whose precocious precision makes Rick cry.

Once Upon a Time won't be everybody's cup of Hollywood fabulousness. If you thought Tarantino's masterpiece Jackie Brown was a snore, after two and a half hours you'll wonder if this shaggy-dog story will ever resolve. And if you viewed Inglourious Basterds as a cheap, cheating take on tragic history, you might feel the same about Once Upon a Time. The ending will be controversial. But for this grownup who was 13 in 1969, it cast an irresistible spell.