The trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has been viewed 13 million times, approximately two dozen of them by me. I seem to be obsessed with it, and not in the casual way some people say “obsessed.” It makes my heart thump and also kind of sink and ache, which is the way I react to art that moves me, be it novels, paintings, pop songs, arias or films.
A good trailer is a promise to a moviegoer. It hints that what you’re going to watch might, just might, be more than a film: It could be a transcendent experience. If the casting is perfect, if the music drops at the right moment, if the mise-en-scène is just enough, but not too much, a film can make you yearn for something you didn’t know you missed. It can alter your way of looking at the world, subtly but permanently. A good trailer whispers in your ear, “It might not – but what if it does?”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s is a brilliant trailer, all two minutes and 35 seconds of it. (I haven’t seen the film yet; it opens July 26.) It meets the criteria I mention above. And, like any good story, it has acts.
Act 1, we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor on the verge of washed up; his agent (Al Pacino); and his long-time stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). We catch evocative glimpses of Rick’s world, 1969 Los Angeles, with its Dean Martin film posters, canyon bungalows, Sunset Boulevard traffic, starlets doing the frug. We pan by Musso and Frank’s Grill (“oldest in Hollywood”), the Cinerama Dome and a theatre marquee advertising The Night They Raided Minsky’s. We see bunnies prancing at the Playboy mansion, and Rick twisting on a Laugh-In-ish variety show, rocking his white-man-overbite.
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Midway through Act 1, we get our first glimpse of trouble – the Manson follower Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) – then a snippet of Cliff’s story: “I’m a stuntman,” punch, chop, peel off shirt. We get Kurt Russell, on whom I’ve had a crush since The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes – look it up, kids – playing Randy. And we get Rick on a set, struggling.
Then, right smack at the midpoint, music change, Act 2. The first piano notes of Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show (which was the lead number on his 1969 smash album, Sweet Caroline) play as Rick admits, “It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.”
The mood darkens: Rick smokes in his pool (with a beer stein! A proper, lidded beer stein!), as the camera pulls up and over his roof to the house next door, where an actor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and her boyfriend in a blue tux with a ruffled shirt (we know he’s Roman Polanski) exit giggling. Then a fantastic sideways pan, where the camera finds the street sign “Cielo Drive” like an unwelcome guest. Like a stab. If, like me, you read the book Helter Skelter at a formative age, you will shiver here.
Now we get a sliver of Sharon’s story, all lemon-sunshine promise, undercut immediately by Cliff’s first step onto Spahn Ranch, where the Manson clan lives. Too-still, too-grimy women watch as Pussycat tells him, “Charlie’s gonna dig you.” (Yes, that’s Lena Dunham behind Qualley; even the way they hold hands is ominous.) Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) slow-smiles – more shivers – beside a battered Twinkie truck, no less.
Then boom, it’s Act 3, a swirling montage of Fun and Uh-Oh: punch, dance, horse gallop, wary Cliff, creepy women, karate chop, gunshot, drink, drive, swim. Leo at a wet bar! Brad in brown-lensed aviator sunglasses! Margot in a pool! Timothy Olyphant looking hot! Dakota Fanning – holy heck, is she Squeaky Fromme? It’s cool, it’s dangerous, it’s too much, it’s going to snap. “In this town,” Rick says, “it can all change like that,” as three silhouetted figures stride up a dark canyon road, the knife in one’s hands flashing straight into the camera.
Really, it’s so great.
Musically, it’s perfect, too, the way the lyric, “hot August night”, begins at Rick’s pool and washes over the canyon (because, of course, the Manson clan murdered Tate on an August night 50 years ago). The lyric dies down for a line or two and then comes back up at Spahn’s tumbledown ranch, perfectly timed with “a ragged tent/where there ain’t no trees.” Tarantino has a particular genius for rehabilitating songs that have been dismissed as cheesy, making them sound terrific, ironic, sinister, old and new all at once.
On a more macro level, the trailer keeps returning to the ticking clock of Sharon Tate’s life, which is also all our lives. Ideas echo about time passing, people aging, careers fading. “So you’re still in the racket?” Randy asks Cliff (wink, wink, Russell asks Pitt).
“Here I am, flat on my ass, and who’s living next door to me?” Rick whines – speaking for literally every person who’s ever lived in L.A. Everyone there wants to appear laid back, but everyone is on edge, because someone youngerrichersmarter is always coming along behind – even, the casting implies, behind kings such as Pitt and DiCaprio. The sunniness of Hollywood’s no-seasons tricks you into thinking time isn’t passing, that you’re not aging. That you won’t die.
That’s what moves me so much about this trailer. That, and how palpable Tarantino’s love is for L.A. (which is also the L.A. I love). How you catch layers of funky, gritty history almost-buried under the always-new. How the lights twinkle beneath the hills; how the night air smells like flowers. How people are pulled west to do something, to be part of something. How gruelling that is to catch. How ephemeral it is even if you do catch it. A great film is so hard to pull off; most smack into the tarmac 50 yards short of landing. That’s the ache and the romance of it, which Tarantino clearly knows.
And hey, every now and then, a miracle happens: The elements come together, the movie gods smile and a beautiful film is born. Something that means something, about America and cinema and hope and defeat. Something that will last. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood seems to be about that. And it could – I stress, I haven’t seen it yet – it could itself be one of those magic movies. It could find that place where innocence was and then suddenly wasn’t. It could succeed as crystalline, uncynical art in a murky, cynical business.
Or it could just have one hell of a trailer.
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