Musical Space: Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood

Aug 13, 2019

Every Quentin Tarantino film is a musicological event — a study in the use of soundtrack music  — and his latest is particularly interesting, because he limits himself only to music heard when the movie takes place, in 1969. So, without divulging spoilers or trying to be a film critic, I really have to talk about Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood.

Most striking is the film’s many layers. It’s a movie about making movies: actors playing characters playing characters, history distorted through camera lenses as seen through camera lenses. The confusion allows Tarantino to live out a fan-fiction fantasy; he even gets to direct scenes from bad TV shows and genre flicks. But even though the plot sends our perception a million fun directions, it’s all tied together with a near-constant AM radio broadcast. More ubiquitous than the cigarettes and hairspray, the soundtrack sustains the energy through his signature long scenes, and keeps a sharp focus on hippie-era L.A. culture.

“Jenny Take a Ride,” Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (1965). Really a version of “See See Rider,” first recorded by blues artist Ma Rainey in 1924. Example of  ‘60’s appropriation of the Blues

One of the real stars of the film is Mary Ramos, the music supervisor who’s worked with Tarantino since Reservoir Dogs. It must have been a tough job securing the rights to these historic artifacts, some of which are such a part of pop culture that they take on the same cameo-appearance quality as pretty much every actor’s entrance.

To be sure, this film won’t be everybody’s cup of tea — the directing is as indulgent and far-reaching as that of the time it evokes — but I enjoyed every minute, and musically, Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood is a triumph.

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Listening list:

“Hector,” The Village Callers, Live (1968). Precisely why I like movie soundtracks as a discovery service. East L.A. Latin R&B band I’d never heard of, ripe for hip-hop sampling.


 

“Bring a Little Lovin',” “Los Bravos” (single, 1968). Amazing energy. This band was based in Madrid, with a German lead singer; you might know them from the 1966 hit “Black is Black.” “Bring a Little Lovin’” was written for them by an Australian band The Easybeats.


 

“Mannix Theme,” Lalo Schifrin (released as a single 1969). Maybe the most time-bound piece here: a genius big-band jazz waltz that would never fly today.

Buchanan Brothers – “Son of a Lovin’ Man” (1969). Misogyny seems to be part of the style. Not sure if this song even charted.


 

“California Dreamin’,”Jose Feliciano, Feliciano! (1968). So much moodier than the Mamas & the Papas version. The “B” side to the single was “Light My Fire.”


 

“You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Vanilla Fudge (1968). Wow, this is awesome - a seven-minute rock odyssey. Originally a Holland-Dozier-Holland hit for the Supremes. Also featured in Mad Men and the finale of The Sopranos.

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