Through clouds of cigarette and pot smoke, with rockin’ radios blaring from convertibles cruising past crackling late-night neon, writer-director Quentin Tarantino delivers us to a distinct destination: 1969.

It’s Southern California, where the eternal sun mixes with the bright lights of sound stages and the high-wattage smiles of movie stars. Tarantino has dubbed his latest creation “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” as if we needed a reminder that his fantasy time-travel is a hybrid fairy tale.

This is not high-end Tarantino. It’s not up to the ingenious levels of “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs” or “Inglourious Basterds.” It’s a meandering, multi-layered cinema exercise that lacks a propelling plot.

However, much of its two hours and 40 minutes is satisfying anyway because we get to hang with two charismatic gents: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

Now, a show of hands for everyone who, when you first heard that Quentin Tarantino was making a movie about the Manson Family murders, assumed it would be a trippy gore fest? Or something akin to the spurting-blood levels when the Bride slashed all those masked dudes to death in “Kill Bill: Volume 1”?

I thought, Do I really need to see Sharon Tate (eight and a half months pregnant at the time) and her friends get murdered all over again at the hands of Charles Manson’s crazed cultists?

Turns out, this film is really more about Tate’s (fictional) next door neighbor, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a fading TV star trying to catch on in films, and his sometimes stunt double and driver Cliff Booth (Pitt).

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” stumbles because it runs out of story before the credits role. But it succeeds, in part, because it is such a loving tribute to the TV and film industries during a beautifully recreated era.

We get glimpses of 1950s black and white TV Westerns, cheesy 1960s movies, popular, tough-guy shows like “Mannix” and “The F.B.I.,” a reinterpreting of “The Great Escape” and parties at the Playboy Mansion. There are movie posters, comics, magazines, restaurants, vintages cars and clothes, all lovingly rendered by production designer Barbara Ling, costume designer Arianne Phillips and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson.

Navigating all of this are Dalton and Booth. Dalton, lives in a swanky pad, drinks too much and has trouble memorizing his lines. He would like to somehow connect with his newlywed neighbors, the star-on-the-rise Tate (Margot Robbie) and director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), just coming off the huge hit, “Rosemary’s Baby.

Booth lives in a rusty trailer behind a Drive-In theater in Van Nuys with his Rottweiler Brandy. The scenes with Booth feeding and communicating with Brandy are priceless. Booth’s flashback to a showdown with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of “The Green Hornet,” is also one of the film’s high points.

Dalton has been reduced to guest shots on TV shows, but his agent Marvin (Al Pacino in fine form) is trying to steer him over to Italy to star in some cheapo spaghetti Westerns, ala the trio of films Clint Eastwood made with Sergio Leone. (Tarantino’s title salutes Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America.")

In the meantime, Booth picks up a hitchhiking hippie chick (Margaret Qualley), who brings him to the dilapidated Spahn Movie Ranch, once the set for films and TV Westerns. There he meets Manson’s freaky followers, including Gypsy (Lena Dunham) and Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning).

 

Strong performances

DiCaprio and Pitt deliver terrific performances. Both have romped memorably at Camp Tarantino before: DiCaprio as a slave owner in “Django Unchained,” Pitt as the leader of the Jewish revenge-seekers in “Inglourious Basterds.”

DiCaprio has the richer role, and he makes the most of it, battling Dalton's insecurities and the demons of depression. Pitt is more affable and easy-going, exuding a seen-it-all weathered wisdom as Booth (a character with a shady past).

Tarantino also peppers his film with an array of regulars — Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern — and brief flashes of celebrities from the time. (The film also features the last filmed performance of the late Luke Perry.)

But those characters, and there are dozens of them, are all minor players. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is all about the friendship between Dalton and Booth and the re-imagined events that took place in February and August of 1969.

As several writers and historians have noted, the legendary '60s really ended on Aug. 9, 1969 (the date of the multiple Manson murders), or on Dec. 6, 1969 (following the deaths at the Altamont rock concert featuring the Rolling Stones). Take your pick.

But thanks to film and video, and Tarantino, '60s Hollywood lives forever.

 

Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.