As celebrated as he is for his movies, Quentin Tarantino makes relatively few of them — so when he does, you can expect that you’re in for something unique.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (which Starz shows Sunday, April 25, and Thursday, April 29) surely is that, a whirlwind of late-1960s pop culture as seen largely through the eyes of a has-been television-Western star and his former stunt double.
In those roles respectively, Leonardo DiCaprio and (in an Oscar-winning performance) Brad Pitt bring all of the watchable qualities they’re known for, and that’s really helpful as they play a couple of guys who remain pals while living on the fringe. That lifestyle eventually puts them on a course to meet Charles Manson (portrayed by Damon Herriman), and the movie then takes an off-ramp into an exploration of one of the 20th century’s most infamous cults and heinous crimes.
What’s really intriguing about “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is how vividly entertainment connoisseur Tarantino satisfies his own passions as he gets to revisit them in his own way. If you have a soft spot for TV’s “The Green Hornet” or Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies, you’ll find nods to them here — the latter because the last of those spy adventures involved actress Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie as her ultimately tragic story is considered here.
Also getting a lot of attention (to the likely appreciation of true TV fans) is “Lancer,” which was an actual, short-lived Western series. Timothy Olyphant (“Justified”) and, in one of his final roles, Luke Perry play that show’s stars, James Stacy and Wayne Maunder.
The parade of stars here also includes Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Kurt Russell and Bruce Dern … and if you’re a devotee of the pop music of the ’60s, you’ll appreciate how Tarantino chose his soundtrack. The featured artists range from the Rolling Stones and Paul Revere & the Raiders to Deep Purple and Vanilla Fudge. (Don’t recognize some of those names? Ask your parents. Or your grandparents.)
It’s hard to say whether you’re better off approaching “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” with a knowledge of the time period it recaptures. It’s definitely that era as seen through the particular lens of Quentin Tarantino, and even if it doesn’t always fire on all burners during a running time that’s a little short of three hours, it surely is one of the most ambitious and admirable projects of the film season.