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California Dreaming

The Parallels Between Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Bad Times at The El Royale

By Michael Briggs


As Joan Didion soberly reflected in the title piece of her 1979 essay collection, The White Album:

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”

Didion’s words, of course, speak to the unspeakable crimes committed by members of the infamous Manson Family, when they invaded the home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski and murdered Tate and three of her friends. That event, as Stephen Phillips wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year, was “the needle scratch to the 1960s soundtrack of peace, love and mellow vibes that brought the idealistic era to a screeching halt.” And, just as Charles Manson himself shadowed the killers in their bloody quest that night, he’s continued to cast a long shadow across American popular culture, including Hollywood’s “dream factory.”

Two recent films in particular—Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019) and Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)—allude to Manson’s powerful spectral presence and, beyond that, reflect an unanticipated resonance with each other that has gone largely unnoticed. On the surface, the two films—one a meditation on a bygone Hollywood era and the other a kinetic reworking of the film-noir crime thriller—might seem to have little in common, beyond the obviously strong scripts, acting, directing, and cinematography. But a closer look reveals intriguing links—including a common historical period and secondary plots that overtake and reframe each story—which broaden and enrich our understanding of each film.

Both films take place in 1969, often considered a cultural as well as chronological marker for the end of 1960s idealism, initially energized by the Free Speech and Civil Rights Movements and crashing to a climax with the homicide-haunted fiasco at the Altamont concert (chaotic logistics and nocturnal mayhem accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”). Some would move the terminus back to the social implosion that followed Haight-Ashbury’s demise after 1967’s “Summer of Love” or to the twin assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy two months apart in 1968. Others have argued that the hammer on youthful altruism and rebellion didn’t finally fully hit until the early 1970s, with the decline of cheap energy and the end of the post-war economic boom, the Vietnam War’s slow demoralizing drag to the finish line, the convergent demise of the military draft, and the exhausting misdeeds of President Richard Nixon and investigations and impeachment they produced.

Regardless, by 1969 it was clear that a decade once bright with hope and optimism had finally been overwhelmed by much darker and more threatening forces. Both Tarantino’s and Goddard’s films speak to the growing anxiety, even outright terror, that had palpably and inexorably materialized throughout that decade. Indeed, during the 1960s idealism and destruction (militarism, racism, and assassination) were inextricably and dangerously entwined. By 1969 countercultural idealism had eroded significantly as it stumbled to the end of the darkening decade, even acknowledging Woodstock’s kumbaya moment, the anti-Vietnam war movement that continued well past 1969, and the heroic investigative reporting on Watergate that followed.

All of that primarily provides context and background for both films and remains mostly unaddressed in any direct way. Tarantino focuses his story on two compelling characters living and working in a transitioning Hollywood. One is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging actor best known for starring in television Westerns and extremely anxious about his declining status in an industry buffeted by cultural change and new faces. The other is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the TV star’s longtime stunt double, who stoically shoulders his own professional anxieties in light of his far from secure dependence upon the TV star’s employment. Both Rick and Cliff are outsiders to the cultural shifts that had overtaken American society by 1969. In particular, both view the arrival of “hippie” culture with a combination of puzzlement, amusement and disdain, while being somewhat dazed by and envious of a more youthful new generation of stars and filmmakers, like Rick’s neighbors Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. They remain nostalgically rooted in an earlier and much more conventional era, a condition which in its clash with the social and cultural realities of 1969 have begun to make both men feel marginalized and in need of reframing their expectations, especially regarding their future employment.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo Dicaprio in Once Upon in Hollywood

Goddard’s film, unlike Tarantino’s, dives right into the darkness after a brief stage-setting scene, pretty quickly dispensing with all-natural light (with one key flashback exception). It is, in essence, a neon-lit neo-noir movie. Deception and moral corruption dominate pretty much from the beginning, even as the film eventually presents a “conversation” between brooding forms of greed and narcissism, on the one hand, and flawed attempts at goodness and altruism on the other, especially in the film’s second half. The narrative is predicated upon and catalyzed by the original sin of robbing an armored truck years before. That heist was conceived and executed by a band of thieves headed by Donald “Dock” O’Kelly, a middle-aged convict played by a pitch-perfect Jeff Bridges. Finally out of prison and masquerading as a priest, Dock sets out to repossess the heist money. For years that money has remained buried beneath the floorboards of a particular room at the El Royale, a motel that literally straddles the California-Nevada border and that by 1969 has fallen on hard times. Dock returns to the motel just ahead of a “dark and stormy night,” where he intends to inconspicuously nab the hidden loot and make a swift getaway…Things do not go as planned.

Guests arrive at the El Royale hotel lobby

While the plots of both films play out in the year 1969, they do seem to diverge in most other respects, with one major exception—the films’ secondary plots and a specific element within them, used by both directors to eerily similar effect (if not intent). Both films employ a secondary plot built around the figure and influence of a charismatic cult leader. In the Tarantino film, we catch only the briefest of glimpses of the cult leader—the infamous Charles Manson (Damon Herriman)—but also witness his enormous influence on the bizarre behavior of his followers, highlighted in an unexpected confrontation between them and Cliff and then again in the film’s violent denouement, albeit one that weaves the factual with the counterfactual in ways that echo two other Tarantino films.

Charles Manson smiles and waves
Charles Manson (Daniel Herriman) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sunny smiles and peace
signs obscuring the darkness to come

Goddard’s secondary plot also revolves around a charismatic Manson-like cult leader—Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth)—who also exerts near-total control over his followers, willing to pursue violent means for deceptively dubious ends. But, while Manson himself looms invisibly over the plot in Tarantino’s film, Billy Lee is a dominating physical presence in Goddard’s film, although he doesn’t show up until the film’s second half. The difference makes sense: the character “Manson” and his “Family” in Tarantino’s movie need to no introduction or backstory because their very names vividly evoke a menacing collective c.v. that many moviegoers already know by heart. By contrast, Goddard’s audience knows nothing about the character “Billy Lee” before he shows up and begins to exert a powerful influence on the main plot. And, because, we know nothing about him until that point, Goddard actually uses one of Tarantino’s favorite devices—the flashback—to help us understand who he is, why he’s become a part of the narrative, and what kind of threat he might pose to one or more of the other characters. With all of that in place, Billy Lee’s evocation of Charlie Manson is hard to miss. (And that evocation is dramatically reinforced by, among other things, the image of a very detached Billy Lee devotee standing over a dead body with a bloody knife.)

This brings us to the specific element in both secondary plots that I found so striking and resonant—a musical motif, one that conjures up the entire era of the 1960s with its interpenetrating dance of light and darkness, innocence and evil, peace and violence, hope and despair. Both directors make thematic use of the same lyrics written and sung by one of the most popular groups of the late 1960s—the Mamas and the Papas. The song they draw upon is “Twelve-Thirty,” composed by bandleader John Phillips around 1965 and debuting in 1967—as a completely new song on a greatest-hits album and also as a hit single on 7” vinyl. (The latter appeared just two months before Charles Manson’s ill-fated arrival in the L.A. area.) Here are its opening lines:

I used to live in New York City;

Everything there was dark and dirty.

Outside my window was a steeple

With a clock that always said twelve-thirty.

 

Young girls are coming to the canyon,

And in the mornings I can see them walking.

I can no longer keep my blinds drawn,

And I can’t keep myself from talking.

Cover of Mamas and Papas Straight Shooter 12.30

Only a modest hit upon its release, the song’s reputation has generally grown in stature over the years and is frequently cited as the short-lived band’s last great song. Meanwhile, the meaning of its lyrics—some of it rooted in reality (the clock seems to have been one that Phillips could see from his Greenwich Village apartment)—have also generally coalesced around the simple but evocative contrast between dark and light: New York City and its gritty claustrophobic urban landscape versus the more open and pastoral vibes denoted by California’s (or Laurel Canyon’s) sunny climate and easygoing social landscape. Many fans and critics also view the lyrics as a confessional tale of a songwriter emerging from depression, in response to his move from the purgatory of New York City to the Promised Land of Los Angeles. In real life, of course, that burst of optimism was ultimately hard for Phillips, his band, and the Sixties to sustain.

Goddard, for his part, uses these lyrics to introduce a completely new character to the movie audience in ninety-second segment that begins with Lee lover and devotee Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny) staring directly at the camera through a trellis-like grate in the foreground and then cuts immediately to a ground-level tracking shot of someone walking toward the El Royale entrance in a driving rain, water pooling reddish neon at his booted heels.

The cult leader arrives at the El Royale in the rain

The next shots show Dock and Darlene (emerging star Cynthia Erivo)—a new and unexpected accomplice— attempting to flee with the reacquired robbery loot, only to be captured by unseen assailants, one wielding a knife and one a gun. The camera returns to the new character’s backside, rising to shoulder height and then reversing to a blurry shot from the front that reveals a young muscular man (shirt open from neck to navel) approaching the two would-be escapees. A flash of thunder-and-lightning brightens his face in a close-up. He looks up into the rain as if seeking relief and then sleepy-eyed looks from one captive to the other, and then smiles mischievously at the camera, before saying simply: “Howdy.” At that precise moment, the song suddenly swells from the melancholy and nearly acapella first stanza to the buoyant, full-throated, and fully instrumented second stanza beginning with: Young girls are coming to the canyon. 

Billy standing in the rain with his shirt open

As the song continues, Goddard cuts to a Tarantino-esque title card which reads simply: “Billy Lee.” This is followed by a flashback to the recent past beginning with a birdseye view of a solitary and completely shirtless Billy Lee entering an idyllic setting of fields profusely flowered in bright sunny yellows, followed by a medium waist-level shot of Billy Lee moving from left to right through this rich warm prairie, and concluding with a view from behind as he continues to float through the flora. That third shot holds steady as Billy Lee moves into the distance and his followers one-by-one enter the film frame from either side. The first two are Rose on the left and a young male on the right shouldering a rifle, signaling an ominous martial element in an otherwise pastoral scene. This part of the flashback concludes once the entire group, mostly young women, have entered the frame and assumed a V-formation behind Billy Lee’s point, accompanied once again by the crescendo line Young girls are coming to the canyon. At that point, the song stops, as the narrative cuts to a new part of the flashback.

Billy walking through a field of yellow flowers

The overall import of the entire flashback scene is to reveal Billy Lee’s status as a megalomaniacal cult leader who appears to be in complete control of his followers through the power of his words and sacrilegious ideas. He’s also presented as a leader who isn’t above inciting violence to reinforce his control, all while suggesting that if God actually exists He/She is merely a voyeuristic watcher unwilling or unable to effect redemption or salvation for anyone. Again, the echoes of Manson (and other cult leaders) is unmistakable.

We never hear the Mamas and Papas again after the flashback but in the climactic scene that follows—once the narrative returns to time-present at the El Royale—there is one final echo from the lyrics of “Twelve-Thirty’s” second stanza. Billy Lee, now seemingly in control of the situation, intensely grills his new-found hostages to learn the lowdown not only regarding the origins of bank loot but also regarding a curious 8-millimeter film roll that has turned up with the money. (By this point the audience has learned that this is one of countless reels that have been produced clandestinely through two-way mirrors, as part of a scheme for entrapping and blackmailing the hotel’s past prominent guests, including a high-profile public figure.) Dock and Darlene are reluctant to talk initially but, after Billy Lee underscores his lethal inclinations, he is given the bank loot’s back story. 

Darlene, however, wearily pushes back on Billy Lee’s rambling about the film roll’s lurid contents. With no need nor any desire to see what is actually on that reel, she memorably offers: “Let me guess. It’s some man, who talks a lot. He talks so much that he thinks he believes in something. And really he just wants to fuck who he wants to fuck. I’ve seen it enough. I’m not even mad about it anymore. I’m just tired. I’m just bored of men like you.” Intended or not, those words echo the final line of the second stanza of “Twelve-Thirty”: And I can’t keep myself from talking. And, surely, self-absorbed cult leaders like Billy Lee and Manson seem to have a similar difficulty.

Darlene points a gun at Doc as they both sit in a cadillac

At this point, the context and indirect commentary provided by “Twelve-Thirty” leaves Bad Times at the El Royale, save for the indeterminate possibility that the climax of this scene might actually be occurring sometime shortly after midnight. The violence that follows echoes—in intensity and body count—the climactic scene in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, reinforcing the resonance between the two films. The latter film, however, draws much more directly and complexly upon “Twelve-Thirty” and its creators.

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood’s title announces a fairy tale but its plot is rooted in the historical reality of 1969 L.A. and Hollywood. Tarantino’s plot is bracketed chronologically by two dates: February 8, 1969, and August 8-9, 1969. The latter dates, of course, are blood-red letter dates for anyone who recalls the Manson murders. But the initial February date is important for setting up the essential tensions in the film’s narrative: between the Dream Factory’s aging and youthful players, between the peace-and-love vibes promoted by rootless hippies and the workaday world of Rick and Cliff, between the carefree beauty and innocence of an aspiring actress and the gruesome fate that awaits her, and between the lurking menace of Charlie Manson’s world and the stoic moral code exemplified by Cliff.

As the tensions play out, sometimes just beneath the surface and sometimes much more visibly, the Mamas and Papas join the narrative at two prominent points in this opening section of the film. First, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), arriving with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) for a party at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, is greeted by the “Mamas,” first Michelle Phillips and then Cass Elliott. The three of them immediately join the dancing (to the tune of the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man”). Second, after Cliff’s violent confrontation with the menacing Manson Family at the Spahn Ranch, he drives back to Hollywood to pick up Rick, who’s just concluded his shooting day, with the sound and lyrics of “California Dreamin’” in the background. Tarantino, however, rather than use the original version by the Mamas and the Papas, chose to go with Jose Feliciano’s even more mournful cover, perhaps to underscore the melancholy dusk beginning to envelop the city and foreshadow darker events of the sort exposed by the Spahn Ranch episode.

Sharon Tate with the women of the mamas and papas strutting at a party
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) dancing at a Hollywood party with her friends Michelle Phillips
(Rebecca Rittenhouse ) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf ) of the Mamas and the Papas in Once
Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Such foreshadowing is musically underscored even more when the action resumes six months later—on “the hottest day of the year” and on dates that coincide with the Manson family murders—when Rick (new wife by his side) and Cliff return from shooting a low-budget “spaghetti western” in Italy and Sharon begins a day of socializing with her friends, awaiting her husband’s delayed return from England 1. From their airport arrival and return to Rick’s house through Sharon’s lunch date with actress Joanna Pettet and concluding with the dusk arrival of Sharon and several houseguests at the neon-lit El Coyote restaurant, the soundtrack blares out “Baby, Baby, Baby, You’re Out of Time” sung by the Rolling Stones, whose own encounter with violence and bloodshed would occur only a few months later at the Altamont concert. 

Within this section of the film, Tarantino supplies a visual countdown to tragedy, beginning when the time 12:30 pm flashes on the screen as Pettet arrives for lunch and concluding at 12:03 Rick begins making margaritas at home. Intentional or not, those times allude to the approximate time of the actual attack of the Manson Family members and, thus, a resonating if indirect link to the Mamas and Papas’ “Twelve-Thirty.” 2

Near the midnight hour in Tate’s home in Benedict Canyon, her close friend and onetime paramour Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) places a record on the stereo, which begins to play the first two stanzas of “Twelve-Thirty.” As Cliff and Brandy, out for a late-night walk, move away from the camera and disappear down Cielo Drive, “Twelve-Thirty” continues on the soundtrack, while headlights of a beat-up car appear to his left, rolling slowly noisily toward the camera accompanied by the lyric young girls are coming to the canyon

the girls of the manson family walk laughing and smiling together
Young girls are coming to the canyons in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

The car—containing four members of Manson’s cult—pulls closer and closer as the Mamas and the Papas continue to sing “Twelve-Thirty,” which is briefly but abruptly interrupted before the second stanza is finished when the car’s lights are switched off and replaced by the crashing whirr of Cliff’s blender making margaritas, an aural and visual interruption hinting at the violence to come. The song then plays faintly throughout the ensuing confrontation between driver Tex Watson (Austin Butler) and a highly annoyed Rick Dalton, who steps out into the night just as the line young girls are coming to the canyon repeats. 

The song finally ends when Tex backs up and leaves the area, only to return later on foot and with murderous intent, accompanied by two female accomplices and the drumbeat opening from “You Keep Me Hanging On” by Vanilla Fudge. They break into Rick’s home, where they find not the foul-mouthed Rick who’d chased them off but an acid-tripping Cliff trying to feed Brandy after their walk and wondering if the invaders are real or part of his trip. Tex informs Cliff that he’s “as real as a donut, motherf*cker!” and moments later announces that he’s “the Devil and here to do the Devil’s business” (words actually voiced by the real Tex Watson during the attack on Tate and her friends).

Leonardo Dicaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The mayhem that follows is classic Tarantino bloodbath, but with a classic Tarantino twist that moves his viewers from historical fiction to fictional history—to the land of fairy tale. In this tale—unlike the history we now know but very much reflecting a Hollywood we knew then—the monsters are vanquished, heroes save the day, and the princess is saved.

The film’s aftermath reinforces both its fairy tale “happy ending” and our simultaneous sense of loss at knowing what really happened that night. This is highlighted in the film’s postscript when Rick converses with a still very-much-alive Jay Sebring—standing behind the Tate estate’s iron gate—who’d been roused by the arrival of the police. A very surprised Rick discovers that Jay is actually a fan of his work and soon an equally curious Sharon joins their conversation. But she does so invisibly.  Before she says a single word, the camera, as if in anticipation, inexplicably swings toward an intercom speaker. Only then do we hear Tate’s bright but disembodied voice. Jay fills her in about what’s happened to their “neighbor,” who it turns out she knows by name. She then invites Rick to come up for a drink, which he gratefully accepts. Has-been or not, his neighbors’ recognition and invitation seem to spark a tiny flame of hope for an actor who’d seemed to have lost his way.

Sharon Tate dances in the sunshine

The over-sized gate opens slowly, almost ominously—as if a portal to a cemetery of lost souls—accompanied by Maurice Jarre’s haunting “Miss Lily Langtry” theme 3. Rick enters but the camera does not follow, instead soaring high above as Rick and Jay are met by Sharon and her friends Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski. While the camera hovers overhead, they chat briefly and then exit from view—four figures who in real-life were never seen alive again and a fifth figure who never actually existed. As Jarre’s music swells to fullness, the title materializes on screen: first Once Upon a Time (in white) and then . . . in Hollywood (chrome yellow).

So, yes, in the end, a fairy tale. But a fairy tale in great tension with our knowledge of the historical truth of that night. The tension between the fragility of innocence and the destructive power of evil. Between the kind of life-affirming light and hope-denying darkness one glimpses in the lyrics of “Twelve-Thirty,” a song re-released in May 1968 on the Mamas and Papas fourth album, midway between the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. By the time of the Manson murders, what had originally been written as a highly personal reflection about the songwriter’s state of mind—and the potential redemptive power of California’s counterculture (and the young girls who flocked there)—now seemed exposed for embracing a deliverance that would never really be fulfilled. In the end, some of the young girls who came to the California canyons, far from offering salvation, had become weaponized for the kind of mayhem depicted in both Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood and Bad Ties at the El Royale. “Young girls” with knives and blood on their hands.

Another intriguing aspect of the song and its use by both directors can be found in its around-midnight title. The specific time in the title is 12:30, of course, and presumably chosen because of an actual stuck steeple clock viewed by Phillips from his Village apartment. But it’s still a really curious choice, one that, in opting to highlight the song’s darker message, is at odds with the redemptive trajectory of its lyrics. Sometimes this is softened by the parenthetical inclusion of a subtitle comprised of the song’s most familiar refrain: young girls are coming to the canyon. But that remains subordinate to the darkness of the main title that resonates with dire events associated with the witching hour after midnight.

As previously suggested, 12:30 a.m. is a rough but plausible start time for the attacks launched both by the real Manson marauders and by those that occur in Tarantino’s film. That timeline is a bit harder to pin down in the Goddard film, but even there it’s entirely possible that Billy Lee and the violence he brings with him arrive at the El Royale shortly after midnight 4. True or not, both directors undeniably chose to tie the song itself—and especially the lyric young girls are coming to the canyon—directly to their films’ violent antagonists. While Goddard’s film alludes to and echoes the violence unleashed by Manson and his deluded followers, it is Tarantino’s film that is the most emphatic in drawing explicit connections between The Mamas and the Papas and their friend Sharon Tate and also between “Twelve-Thirty” and the mayhem that immediately follows.5

Returning to Joan Didion’s essay in The White Album, Alissa Wilkinson noted last year in a Vox article that “it viscerally recreates the anxiety of the period: not just Didion’s, but the country’s. It locates the nexus of that anxiety as the summer of 1969, and especially the Tate murders. And while the country would go on to try to make sense of Manson and the murders in the coming months and years — people have been trying to make sense of them ever since — Didion suggests, in the end, that it’s an impossible task.”

Impossible or not, Tarantino (directly) and Goddard (more obscurely) have crafted two films that effectively channel that end-of-an-era anxiety and in ways that powerfully resonate with each other. And, despite each film’s “happy ending,” both directors have drawn comparably dark visions from Phillips’ young girls coming to the canyon, a line that lingers as a vision of innocence and hope that in the end went unfulfilled.


1 Where Polanski reportedly had just engaged in a brief affair with Mamas and Papas vocalist Michelle Phillips, wife of John Phillips.

It seems almost magically convergent that “Twelve-Thirty” and “Out of Time”—key tracks for the film’s final section—suggest that time has become stuck, frozen within a particular moment in the past, or has completely run out. Either way, in the aftermath life is no longer tenable.

Jarre’s music was borrowed from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, a film about a real nineteenth-century frontier lawman who was so obsessed with actress Lily Langtry that he named a saloon and town after her. It’s perhaps fitting that a film about our collective fascination with a Hollywood icon should end with music about a man who had never met another legendary actress but “had developed an abiding affection for [her] after seeing a drawing of her in an illustrated magazine.” (History Channel article, November 16, 2009). It’s also worth noting that the opening notes of Jarre’s piece seem to faintly echo the theme music to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, his last film before his wife’s murder.

The time is also associated with another horrific event from the 1960s, the first big blow to the decade’s idealism: the fatal headshot in the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy seems to have occurred almost precisely at 12:30 pm. (Less precise but disturbingly close just the same: Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the head at roughly 12:15 a.m., on June 5, 1968.

5 Interestingly, earlier in the evening of August 8th, Tarantino shows Abigail Folger playing Sharon’s piano and singing a song entitled “Straight Shooter.” In fact, the sheet music for that song was still perched on the piano during and after the murders. And the song itself served as the “B” side for the “Twelve-Thirty” single released in 1967.

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