Soundtrack Special: Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood

The year is 1969, the time is roughly 9:40pm. The windy roads of the Hollywood hills are laid out in front of you and just above the revving of a 1964 Karmann Gia engine, you can hear the familiar trippy-rock of Deep Purple.  

Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film transports you back to the dark end of the swinging 60s, so much so that you can practically sense the upcoming change as if imminent to you as a 20th Century viewer. This time-capsule of a film, described by the director as a love letter to Hollywood, is largely dependent on its soundtrack to transport you back in time. Insisting on only using music from and before the year of 1969, Tarantino allowed no exclusive additions in the form of covers or nostalgic sampling as often used in films with a past setting. This sense of realism is contrasted with the director’s signature ‘re-written history’ narrative, strengthening the film’s immersive impact and the alternate ending of the Manson murder tragedy we all know so well. 

The film opens with Roy Head and the Traits, ‘Treat Her Right’ (1965), a punchy soul sound that perfectly sets the scene of the late 60s. It feels related to the spirit of the characters at this point, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski coming off a plane and strutting through the airport to the beat creates a sense of movement and progression. The memorable energy of the song makes for an immediate and lasting impression.

Many of the film’s strongest scenes are driven by the chosen accompanying music. One of which being the Playboy Mansion party where we watch Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate dance to the Buchanan Brothers, ‘Son of a Lovin’ Man’ (1969). An upbeat, poppy to the point of almost bubble-gum track that captures Sharon’s sweet-natured, doe-eyed innocence in the contrasted setting of the Playboy Mansion. Her enthusiasm to the sound of this song is indicative of her music taste in that of a shameless pop sound.

Paul Revere and the Raiders were at the forefront of pop music at the time, not quite capturing the cool-band essence of others on the soundtrack. In a scene where Sharon dances in her home to ‘Hungry’ (1966) she teases her husband Roman Polanski; “You afraid I’ll tell Jim Morrison you were dancing to Paul Revere and The Raiders? Are they not cool enough for you?’, demonstrating her awareness of their poppy status. There is a significance in the use of the song here, as the scene when Sharon first meets Charles Manson: The Raiders producer, Terry Melcher, not only lived in the Cielo Drive house where the infamous murders took place but had a connection to the Manson family.

Buffy Saint Marie’s ‘The Circle Game’ (1967) sets up another musical reflection of Tate’s carefree openness, when she picks up a female hippie hitchhiker to the folky take on a Joni Mitchell classic. 

The soundtrack not only features the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Deep Purple, and Vanilla Fudge but is broken up by radio ads for Tanya Tanning butter and other such quintessentially 60s products. These comedic interludes subtly poke fun at the change in times aswell as working to capture the experience of listening to music via a radio at this time. The film is made up of frequent scenes of Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth driving around LA, radio on, oozing the epitome of laidback cool to Los Bravos’ ‘Bring a Little Lovin’ and other such hits.

At the risk of predictability in using a song as overplayed as The Mamas and Papas’ ‘California Dreamin’’ (1968), the choice of a cover by Jose Feliciano allowed the reference to a band as evocative of the sunny era without the song losing impact though its familiarity. The band’s turmoil disguised by the bright front of their sound captures the bittersweet era of the fading gleam of Hollywood’s golden age. 

Another touch of time-capsule realism is brought in the music of late 60s films, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ from ‘The Graduate’ (1967) and Chad and Jeremy’s Quigley’s ‘Had the Course’ from ‘Three in the Attic’ (1968), a film that is actually seen advertised throughout this depiction of 1969 Hollywood. 

Though obvious callings for this soundtrack would include the Beach Boys, the reality the chosen music creates is almost taken a step back from the climax of the Manson murders due to the fictional spin the film takes, another way of subverting predictability. As America’s closest shot to a revival of The Beatles, the expectation of the Beach Boys’ feature in the soundtrack is not based solely on their widespread popularity at the time, but on their ties to Charles Manson. In the summer of 1968, the Manson cult moved into drummer Dennis Wilson’s home for a brief period of the acid-fuelled summer of 1968. Wilson tried to help Manson in his musical ambitions at his studio, before Manson pulled a knife on his producers and his family subsequently moved out of Wilson’s home. Later that year, the Beach Boys went on to record ‘Never Learn Not to Love’, an altered version of Manson’s ‘Cease to Exist’, with Wilson taking the song writing credit for the track. 

Last but not least, the long-awaited trademark Tarantino violence is played out in the last few minutes of the 2.5 hour film to Vanilla Fudge, ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ (1967). A Supremes hit made dense, creepy and careless in the best way, that perfectly shapes the final climatic scene. The psychedelic tone of the song intensifies Cliff Booth’s high and the comedic uncanniness of Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton finishing off the Manson family killers with a prop flame thrower.