The Sopranos may have infamously ended on a cut to black, but the characters of HBO’s mob epic come roaring back into color with The Many Saints of Newark. Penned by series creator David Chase and directed by series vet Alan Taylor, the film is as filling as a plate of gabagool to fans of Tony Soprano and his unforgettable crew, so much so that they might be hungry for a second helping.
Billed as an origin story for young Tony Soprano, played primarily by the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael, The Many Saints of Newark is actually quite a bit more than that. Alessandro Nivola is at the center of it all as Dickie Moltisanti, a legendary figure on The Sopranos even though he never actually appeared. He was instrumental in Tony’s rise to power, and this story lays the groundwork for the man who would come to be the boss.
Chase knows these characters inside and out, and I’m doubtful anyone who wasn’t a fan of The Sopranos will get a lot of what’s going on. The film actually begins with the words of Dickie’s son Christopher, who constantly lived in his father’s shadow. The irony of having Christopher narrate a story about Tony, who would murder him years later, is meaningful because all of these characters are struggling with their sins. That includes Dickie, and we see that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Dickie is a hothead who constantly takes on more than he can chew, both in business and in love. He has no problem murdering those who get in his way, whether they are friend, foe, or even family. But at the same time, he’s fiercely loyal and protective of Tony, whose own father Johnny Soprano, doesn’t want his son in the family business.
The film is set during Newark’s racially-charged ’60s and ’70s, made worse by the rivalry between the Italian mob and the Black gangs who used to be their hired hands. Leslie Odom Jr. plays a significant part as Harold, who works for Dickie but has aspirations of his own. His role is perhaps the most complex of the entire film, as he goes from being just another hired goon for the mob, to getting swept up in the Black Power movement of the early ’70s and setting out to become his own boss. For much of this time, he and Dickie are friends but there’s a fundamental lack of respect that drives them apart and turns them into enemies.
It can get overwhelming how much Chase packs into The Many Saints of Newark: adultery, murder, racism, and even the immigrant experience all have a major part to play. I could have seen this done as an HBO event series where everything could get its proper due, but at around two hours Chase accomplishes a lot. That includes showcasing a number of the key characters Sopranos fans know and love. Vera Farmiga, sporting a hilarious fake nose, kills it as Tony’s cruel, manipulative mother Liv who never misses a chance to shit on her son. Ray Liotta is terrific in a dual role as the flashy “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti and the introspective “Sally” Moltisanti, the latter spouting Buddhist philosophy behind prison bars. You’ll also see younger versions of popular figures such as Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Silvio (John Magaro), and Big Pussy (Samson Moeakiola). Look close and you’ll even spot a young Carmela, while Corey Stoll plays Uncle Junior with all of the awkward social graces and frustration Dominic Chianese so wonderfully brought to the role previously.
But the film really belongs to Nivola, who is not the first actor I would have thought to be anywhere near The Sopranos. He’s got the slick attitude and bravado of a born gangster with too much power, as well as the internal conflict that the people in this world all carry.
As far as Michael Gandolfini goes, he’s pitch-perfect playing young Tony and that’s not as much of a given as you might think. While he’s got his father’s voice, smile, and even the mannerisms, Michael manages to create a version of Tony that is his own. This Tony isn’t the man he would become years later; he’s still a kid for the most part. He still worships his mother and years for her love; he can be kind-hearted one minute and robbing an ice cream truck the next. He’s also got aspirations that clash with his family’s criminal empire. All of these things will be beaten out of him later on, but Tony’s not there yet and Michael’s performance reflects that.
The Many Saints of Newark is basically a must-see if you loved The Sopranos. I wish it hadn’t been promoted as a Tony Soprano movie because there’s so much more to it, but if that gets people to see it then it’s all worth it. As someone who watched every episode of every season but didn’t love it the way others did, this has made me want to revisit the show in a major way. Here’s hoping David Chase isn’t done with these characters, and that The Many Saints of Newark does well enough that he can come back to them soon.