Published on October 5th, 2021 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Many Saints of Newark: A Sopranos Story
The Sopranos is back with a new prequel film called, The Many Saints of Newark, with a young Michael Gandolfini filling his father’s immense shoes.
David Chase, the brilliant creator of HBO’s The Sopranos always wanted to work in movies. Maybe that’s why he elevated The Sopranos TV show into a thing that tried to bring television up to the level of films. He succeeded, paving the way for the golden era of TV and streaming we have before us now. He used deeper characters, often-anti-heroes, that could change over time, smart and emotional themes, and a cinematic visual language that hadn’t been explored on the small screen too often. David Chase created what is largely seen as the best show that has ever been on television.
Now he’s taken a swing at the big screen with The Many Saints of Newark: A Sopranos Story, which is a prequel to the hit show (the film is actually directed by Alan Taylor, who also worked on the series).
We rewind back to the 1967 riots, when Tony Soprano was a 10-year old boy, then later in time, when he’s 17-years old. But this isn’t always Tony’s story. In fact, it’s really the story of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of Chris Moltisanti from the series. We follow the story of a brewing gang war as Dickie works alongside Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), a young Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll), and other familiar names from both the mob and their family lives.
A great cast goes a long way in Many Saints. Of course, I have to mention one actor that could have easily felt like stunt casting — Michael Gandolfini, son of the late, great James Gandolfini. Michael has a few credits under his belt, including a turn on HBO’s The Deuce. He fills his father’s shoes, while bringing his own interpretation to a younger, more wide-eyed version of the gangster in the crumbling empire that we remember.
Nivola is excellent; like many Sopranos characters, you like him, even though you see him doing things that are legally and morally questionable. It’s always great when they fill out the Sopranos ranks with Goodfellas alumni (like Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi on the series) and this time we get Henry Hill himself, Ray Liotta. He adds a lot of cache to the proceedings. And of course, you get a host of actors playing roles we know, like Vera Farmiga as Livia, as well as younger versions of Silvio, Paulie, Pussy, Janice, and more. Most of them are great. The one exception is John Magaro as Sil; he’s fun to watch for a laugh, but he’s so over the top that it feels like caricature. One of the best performances is from Corey Stoll, who looks and sounds like a young Junior, but not like Stoll is doing an impression of Dominic Chianese.
There’s also a new character who brings an interesting dimension and deeper themes; Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Harold McBrayer, an African American who works with Dickie and eventually becomes a professional rival. It’s a great character and it’s also a window to explore the way the civil rights movement and desegregation affected neighbourhoods like Newark.
So, is it good?
Well, I personally liked it a lot, but that comes with some caveats. I just rewatched the series, so I was primed for the film. But I wonder what people who weren’t fans of the show would think? It’s definitely not in the realm of Goodfellas, Casino, or The Godfather.
It also had one major component that worked both for it and against it.
Here’s the issue: if The Sopranos elevated TV to being closer to cinema, The Many Saints of Newark feels like a movie as a TV episode. In fact, it feels like a season of the show done in two hours.
Now, don’t take that the wrong way; it doesn’t feel like they crammed in too much story for the length. In fact, they wrote and edited it with great care. But it does feel like a lot of these stories could have gotten more screen time (and when do you ever hear me say that?). This could have been better served by making it Casino-length, or as my friend Mike Fisher pointed out, it would have made for a great mini-series. I hate to say it, but because of this, Saints doesn’t have the impact it could have had.
While this is mostly a detriment, it also isn’t entirely a bad thing, because it makes it feel like The Sopranos, not just a feature-length movie with some character names and winged-hair that we recognize. The very fabric of it feels like it was cut from the same cloth as The Sopranos because they tell stories with this kind of scope and weight.
In the end, I hope there is an audience for this because I enjoyed it enough to want to see more. And while Tony Soprano did have a story arc that had a satisfying (though somewhat on-the-nose) ending, they left plenty of room for more story to watch his rise to power play out.
And remember, “you’re only as good as your last envelope.”