Celebrating: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood Part 1 – Once Upon a Time in Laurel Canyon

Editor’s Note: Every month here on Pod Syndicate we will be celebrating a film with multiple pieces written by our staff writers.

We begin with a film which is quite the balm to us film loving folk during a time when none of us can see anything on the big screen with Quentin Tarantino’s ode to tinseltown, actors and the sheer damn pleasure of watching stars do their thing and do it exceptionally well, the majestic Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Kicking us off, The Iron Sequel’s James Lawrence takes a look at how the music of the time informs the atmosphere of the world Cliff, Rick and Sharon inhabit.

As Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth’s fate is sealed, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ushered into it’s finale with one of the most poetic musical cues in recent cinematic memory. The Rolling Stones track ‘Out of Time’ perfectly transitions the film into its third act in which the old guard, realising their time is up, are resigned to spending the rest of their career looking for scraps in Hollywood so they can hold on to that last modicum of fame. Rick Dalton made his disdain for the hippy movement of L.A. abundantly clear throughout the film, but during the evening of August 8th 1969, while Cliff and Rick were having their ‘drunk’ no more than a 10 minute drive from El Coyote, through the sprawling, artery like roads through the Hollywood Hills, there was an idyllic community blossoming known as Laurel Canyon. 

By 1969, some of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century had made their way to L.A. to chase a new kind of dream. A dream in which creative freedom was met with open arms. A dream where musicians shared song ideas and encouraged one another and openly invited strangers into the “inner circle” sometimes sleeping in basements or wash rooms while writing music that wasn’t controlled by a producer, but by the artist themselves. Scene stalwarts like Frank Zappa and Mama Cass gave people like Alice Cooper, Eric Claption and Graham Nash, to name a few, their own unique window into this blossoming movement of singer-songwriters, and for a few, made them leave their past behind to embark on a new and exciting adventure. 

But with the highest (literal) highs and the lowest lows, and no more than a 10 minute drive from Laurel Canyon, the events that changed the world forever took place at 10050 Cielo Drive. The bubble had burst in the most gruesome and shocking fashion. The flower children, or freaks as Frank Zappa lovingly called them, had killed the dream. Five days later, another culture defining event happened on the East Coast. Woodstock, the festival of peace and love. 

A festival that seemed so far removed from the events in Los Angeles that it had to be playing on people’s minds for the duration of the festival. By the end of 1969, the hippy dream was dead and buried. The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont- the bands answer to overpriced tickets on their U.S tour, the hastily organised festival resulted in The Hells Angels providing security. This resulted in the bands being attacked on stage and the unfortunate death of a man in attendance. 

You can ask the question of how this happened over and over and come to a different conclusion each time. It’s no secret that the counterculture was heavily fueled by drugs, and along with that came a lot of high profile casualties- Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons to name a few. The period that followed led to the Laurel Canyon scene disappearing just as quickly as it had blossomed. The hippies, some of which now rich beyond their wildest dreams, moved to secure mansions in suburban areas. Songwriters kept their ideas to themselves as the race to the top had begun. Ruthless managers and record label gurus tying artists down to long term contracts. The era of the stadium tour was in motion. The scene in Almost Famous where Stillwater are changing managers sums up this period perfectly. 

The peace and love hippy movement had gone from one excess to the other. Crashing on floors to private limos and planes up and down the country.

Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars

But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars

Neil Young – Revolution Blues. 

It’s hard to think of an alternate timeline where this didn’t happen. A timeline where after a Maurice Jarre cue from the Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean ends, life goes on as normal. 

One of the most important aspects of the filmography of Tarantino are the musical choices. Nothing is by chance. Every scene, line, set piece is meticulously planned around a specific musical cue. In One Upon a Time……. It seems this is the film in which he has had the most fun picking the soundtrack. Listening to tape after tape of 60s radio shows for that right advert and fitting radio announcement.

The choices provide the perfect accompaniment to Cliff’s (at times reckless) driving up and down the Sunset Strip and Toluca Lake. Bob Seger’s Ramblin’ Gambling Man blasts from the 66’ Coup de Ville whilst he drifts down the 101. Incidentally, Glenn Frey played backing guitar and vocals on the track and a few years later would go on to be one of the creative driving forces behind The Eagles. 

The L.A. session musician collective known as The Wrecking Crew is prevalent throughout most of the Sharon Tate scenes. Paul Revere and the Raiders and Simon and Garfunkel to name a few benefitted from the talent of The Wrecking Crew. Some of these artists fell under the production of Terry Melcher, the son of Dorris Day who has a longstanding place in L.A. and Manson lore. In fact, the scene where Manson approaches Cielo Drive to be greeted by Jay Sebring you can hear a Melcher produced song in the background, as Manson makes his way up the driveway only to be quickly ushered away. 

Laurel Canyon seems to be ever present in Once Upon a Time……without ever really being mentioned. But these influences are all over the picture. The Buffy Saint Marie track ‘The Circle Game’ accompanies Sharon Tate on her trip into downtown L.A., a song originally penned by the enchanting Joni Mitchell. The Mamas and Papas somber ‘Twelve Thirty’ is a precursor to the alternative events at Cielo Drive on that fateful evening. 

Young girls are coming to the Canyon
And in the morning I can see them walking

I can no longer keep my blinds drawn

And I can’t keep myself from talking

The Mamas and Papas – Twelve Thirty 

It is fitting that in reality this was the last time Sharon Tate and the residents at Cielo Drive would ever listen to music again. From the artists point of view, The Mamas and the Papas look at the song as the last great track they recorded before their demise. Another poignant analogy for the death of the hippy dream. 

In some of Tarantino’s films the music can be a bit too eclectic, most notably in Kill Bill 1&2. The music has the feeling of a child hitting shuffle every 30 seconds, and personally I feel he needed to be reigned in with his choices. Not many films can boast a soundtrack with music taken from Kung Fu, Spaghetti Westerns, Poliziotteschi and Blaxploitation. While somehow Tarantino manages it, this can be to the detriment of the film. With Once Upon a Time….he struck gold in making the film have the feeling of flicking through radio stations in 1969 and while Laurel Canyon may not be directly referenced, the spirit and influence is there to be seen. 

I compiled an alternative soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that I believe captures the brooding country folk that the period became synonymous for.

  1. Gene Clark – Echoes 
  2. The Band – Long Black Veil 
  3. Neil Young – The Old Laughing Lady
  4. The Ventures – Hawaii Five-O   
  5. Alice Cooper – Swing Low Sweet Cherrio 
  6. The Byrds – One Hundred Years from Now
  7. Neil Young – The Old Laughing Lady
  8. The Mamas and The Papas – Creeque Alley
  9. Buffalo Springfield – Expecting to Fly
  10. The Monkees – While I Cry
  11. Joni Mitchell – That Song About the Midway
  12. John Mayall – Long Gone Midnight
  13. Crosby, Stills and Nash – You Don’t Have to Cry
  14. Frank Zappa – You Didn’t Try To Call Me
  15. The Beach Boys – Little Bird
  16. The Flying Burrito Brothers – Hot Burrito #1
  17. The Turtles – You Showed Me
  18. Dillard and Clark – The Train Leaves Here This Morning 
  19. Poco – Oh Yeah
  20. Jack Nitzsche – Harry Flowers