By Jeffrey Sanzel
“It’s not T.V. It’s HBO.”
This promotional phrase captured the viewing public’s attention, promoting a shift in the nature and caliber of the small screen. With Oz, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Sex and the City, and Game of Thrones, the subscription service elevated quality and expectations.
But, perhaps the show that truly launched the revolution was The Sopranos (1999-2007). And no anti-hero captured imaginations more than Tony Soprano, vividly brought to life in an award-winning performance by the late James Gandolfini. For eighty-six episodes, over six seasons, the New Jersey mob boss struggled with personal and professional demons.
The Sopranos transformed the gangster/crime genre into an event that was perpetually brutal, darkly humorous, and almost always surprising. The ensemble cast, headed by Gandolfini and Edie Falco, was nothing short of flawless. Yet, even when it strayed from its strengths, it was still the most watchable and addictive show on television.
Sopranos creator David Chase has co-penned the screenplay (with Lawrence Konner) for The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel spanning 1967 to the mid-70s. Focusing on Dickie Moltisanti (father of The Sopranos’ Christopher, played by Michael Imperioli, who narrates from beyond the grave), the story draws on the same well as its source: allegiances and betrayals, violence, and family.
Once again, it is a realm of street shootings, hypocritical funerals, heaping trays of pasta, neglected wives, and abused mistresses. Adding texture and weight to the narrative are the race riots of Newark, as seen through the eyes of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr., making every moment count), an African American associate of the crime family. Though not fully realized, the unrest reflects our contemporary turbulent times.
While Tony’s father, Johnny (Jon Bernthal), is shown going to and returning from prison, the film keeps him surprisingly in the periphery. Dickie’s relationship with his father (a slightly over-the-top Ray Liotta), his father’s immigrant wife (Michela De Rossi, finding depth), and Tony (played by William Ludwig as a boy and James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, as a teenager) are the driving forces.
As Dickie, Alessandro Nivola embodies bravado affected by doubt and guilt. Some of the strongest moments featured his father’s imprisoned twin brother (played with a fascinating edge and subtlety by Liotta). Like The Soprano’s Tony, the shadow of doubt and the battle with moral conflict enrich Nivola’s hoodlum.
The draw in The Many Saints of Newark comes from familiarity with the world Chase created. Saints is, in theory, a standalone film, but the mythology is rooted in what comes next. It is unlikely that people new to The Sopranos will be intrigued enough to explore the original; the film is fan-centric and for devotees.
The most entertaining moments are the ones that reference the characters’ latter selves. John Magaro, as Silvio Dante, finds Steven Van Zandt’s peculiar walk and definitive speech pattern. While given very little to say, Samson Moeakiola’s Big Pussy is a ringer for a young Vincent Pastore. However, with their screen time, these almost feel like cameos or Easter Eggs.
Glimpses of Janice, Carmela, Jackie Aprile, and Artie Bucco are more a Where’s Waldo? than resonating additions to the overall landscape. (Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano fails to capture the essence of Dominic Chianese’s eccentric second fiddle.) The result is recognition of familiar lines or reactions rather than engrossment in the complexity of character.
Vera Farmiga is the exception. She consistently evokes Tony’s elder monster-mother Livia (the indelible creation of Nancy Marchand). Farmiga finds the broad strokes as well as the nuance in the mercurial Soprano matriarch. A simple kitchen interaction with the teenage Tony (Gandolfini) embodies the relationship core to the entire series.
The film conjures the era, shot with a brisk pace and an eye for detail by veteran Sopranos director Alan Taylor, and the gritty, period cinematography of Kramer Morgenthau (whose work has included Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones).
If anything, the movie offers new life to a departed show that was universally mourned by its faithful followers. It is less a driving narrative and more meditative (though violently so): Chase offers a slice of Mafia life. And while there is an arc, there is no sense of finality.
Without James Gandolfini, a return of the television show seems unlikely. So rather than a reboot, Saints heralds a possible film series exploring what led up to where The Sopranos began. Whether these come to fruition remains to be seen. In the meantime, The Many Saints of Newark compellingly sheds some light on what came before.
Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters and streaming on HBO Max.