“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” – Silvio Dante (in his beloved Michael Corleone bit) accurately describing what all Sopranos fans were thinking upon seeing the trailer for The Many Saints of Newark, the new film from Alan Taylor (director of the original series.) After many Covid-related reschedules it’s finally here and refreshingly, in theatres. Sopranos creator David Chase is back, co-writing the screenplay alongside Lawrence Konner (who penned several episodes of both Sopranos and its Godson Boardwalk Empire.) The casting is brilliant, the language is warm and familiar but even for fans of the show, there’s a feeling that this thing of ours didn’t really need to be dug up.
Many Saints opens in a cemetery, panning over the headstones of some of the dearly departed victims of a certain New Jersey mob boss. Everyone’s favouritie ‘camel-nosed fuck’ Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) narrates the scene from beyond the grave, giving us a recap of the bad blood with his ‘Uncle’ Tony (the man responsible for his death.) “But that was much later, ” he says, and we’re transported back to 1967.
Before “Neil Young said the thing on the moon” (a lovely throwback to the many linguistic misunderstandings prevalent among the men in this ‘family’), change was happening in Newark, New Jersey. A massive shift in demographics occurred in the Central Ward, seeing Newark become a majority black city as ‘white flight’ meant a move to Northern Jersey. But the politicians stayed white and did little to cater to the new residents, who in turn faced discrimination, lack of access to education, jobs and housing and police brutality. The beating of a black man by police (unfortunately just as relevant today) saw retaliation in the form of rioting, arson and assault. With the riots came a shift in claims to certain turfs, challenging the Italian American status quo and allowing black gangs to establish themselves.
One such Italian American is Christopher’s father, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), whose memory is often romanticised in the show as a ‘fallen soldier’. A mentor to Tony in his youth, Dickie spent more time fathering him than Johnny Boy Soprano (Tony’s Papa) and certainly more than he did his own son, having his time with Christopher cut short prior to the events of The Sopranos. The beef between Tony and Chrissy was set in stone long before Christopher’s ultimate fate in the final season and the film plays on this in ways that sometimes work and other times, really don’t (more on that later.) Nivola gives a face to the oft-mentioned name and does a good job straddling the line between caring mentor and murderous piece of shit. His best scene – a rough day at the beach – emphasises the latter.
Dickie’s rival is Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr as a non-Sopranos character), a former associate who decides to branch out and start his own criminal business that will soon threaten the DiMeo Family’s reign in the area. Odom Jr is a strong presence in the film and his character’s arc nicely contrasts with Dickie’s. He’s also one of the only actors not portraying an existing character, so there’s no possibility of coming across as just a really good impression. And this is perhaps the issue I have with some of the other performances (accurate though they may be.)
Billy Magnussen masters the iconic hand signal and joke delivery of Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gaultieri, but that’s about it. It’s a bit of a slight to Tony Sirico (the original actor) that Paulie should be reduced to just these two aspects when Sirico was able to pull off some of the greatest concerned eye acting of all time (and the stuff with his mother in the series was a testament to his chops.) John Magaro as the future most loyal of all best friends, Silvio Dante, does an excellent impression down to the slow, penguin-like walk (and I loved seeing the evolution of the hairpiece) but it’s nothing SNL didn’t do in the early 2000s.
It’s perhaps not fair, though, to place the blame on actors for their supporting characters not being developed enough in a two hour prequel film to a six season show. Had this been a series instead (and the general consensus is very loudly in agreement on that point) I doubt these issues would be present.
There are several performances that must be excluded from this gripe though as they manage to nail the intricacies of their characters without sliding into impressionism. I speak firstly of Vera Farmiga as the worst TV mother of all time, Livia Soprano. While Show Livia has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (apart from her ability to run over annoying older women), Farmiga perfectly captures the softened Livia from before her Johnny passed away. This Livia, while still touting an “oh poor you” mentality complete with dismissive hand swipe, is a mother who reads stories to her eldest son and makes such an impression on him that his school guidance counselor relays to her that “it’s one of his best memories.” She does however dismiss this counselor when she tells her that Tony has a high IQ and leadership potential (not new information as Tony reminds everyone in the show), so the Livia we know and hate is still simmering beneath the surface.
Then there’s Corey Stoll as the man who would later see Larry David on TV and wonder “what the fuck? Why am I on there”: Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano. When Stoll speaks, Junior comes out and it’s quite spectacular just to listen. Watching him fall down the stairs in Many Saints is just as fun as the time he gets hit by a journo’s microphone on the steps outside court and manages to get out of serving prison time. There was always a darkness to Junior’s character that would rear its ugly head every now and then, despite being the butt of many jokes throughout the series as the ‘silly old man somehow still in charge’. One of the highlights of this film was seeing that side in its infancy and realising that yes, this man did shoot his own nephew with a shotgun once and yes, he probably knew what he was doing.
The real question was always going to be whether Michael Gandolfini could fill the large shoes his father left, and the answer (mostly) is yes. Although we don’t see him until halfway through (the film spans five years so two young actors play Tony) his familiar smiling eyes and lispy delivery bring a tear to the eye of more sentimental Tony lovers. He plays Tony with a goodness very rarely seen in the series, which just makes his implied fate all the more tragic. There are times where it seems Gandolfini is focusing too hard on getting the accent right, but his father was so far from Tony in real life (in nature and in voice) that it’d be hard to shake what he knows.
The biggest point of interest in the film also seems like the one given the least amount of time – the similarity between the situation that led to the riots and the environment that moulded Tony into the character we know. Take away opportunities, support from respectable authority figures and access to higher education and it’s no wonder that a bright, kind young man would follow in the footsteps of the only role models he has available to him.
I firmly believe that The Sopranos is the greatest television show of all time and I had tremendous excitement for this film, mostly due to the poignancy of having Michael Gandoflini play his late father’s most famous character. But Tony is not the focus here (despite some trailers’ suggestions) and I don’t feel like I learned anything new about Dickie Moltisanti that I didn’t already infer from the series. Time is wasted recreating scenes we’ve already experienced in the show (i.e the formative moment where Janice and Tony see their father arrested at the fairground) and some of the more famous quotes from the show are regurgitated verbatim in a way that felt quite pandering. The tonal choice of having the voice of a dead Christopher comedically berating a then-teenage Tony (who hadn’t committed any sins yet) is quite odd, but I guess Michael Imperioli was the only original cast member with time to spare (no shade – it’s been a hard two years for us all.) This film is very much for the fans and there are definitely little nods in there to please us, but as Tony said himself – ‘Remember When’ is the lowest form of conversation.
In reviewing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Guardian film critic Mark Kermode describes the misunderstood-in-the-90s prequel as “maligned but frankly marvelous”. The amount of new information that some weren’t ready for left a sour taste in the mouths of many supposed fans. But Fire Walk With Me dared to do something bold and while initially unpopular, it proved to be not only a crucial addition to Twin Peaks lore, but an excellent character study of the one person we never got to know in the series. It’s a feat yet to be matched in a prequel movie to a TV Series (El Camino still had some new things to uncover but felt mostly unnecessary) and unfortunately, The Many Saints of Newark is no exception.
I feel about this film how I feel about my own attempts to recreate Carmela’s baked ziti – it’s fine, but it’ll never live up to the original. 6.5 Gabagools out of 10.
The Many Saints of Newark is in cinemas November 4