Note: I only just myself finished watching The Sopranos for the first time, so out of respect for people who are either not done or haven’t jumped in yet, I’m not going to spoil the ending of the show or give anything substantial away (it goes for the movie too). This review will obey Omertà.
In one of his first of many fruitful therapy sessions, Tony Soprano touched on something; “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” He’s talking about his life as a mob boss of course, but as the long-suffering Dr. Melfi notes after, “Many Americans feel that way also.” There are so many lines, themes and characters from the seminal, extraordinary, TV-revolutionising The Sopranos to list, that continue to speak to modern life long after the show cut to black in 2007, but this one, right out of the gate, sticks as one of the most impactful… and also an intriguing question. What did Tony regard “the best”? Now we have an answer.
The Many Saints of Newark, written by Sopranos showrunner David Chase, cowritten by Lawrence Konner and directed by Alan Taylor (two longtime workers on the show), harkens back to those golden days, days that inevitably contain the same rot and decay as the present but with the dangerous allure of nostalgia stripped back. But does it live up to the golden days of the show? Yes. And no. And yes, and no – it’s complicated. I reckon it’s worth the trip for Sopranos lovers, but I’m genuinely unsure how it’ll play to people unfamiliar with its world.
Tony isn’t this movie’s lead, but instead his beloved “uncle” Dickie Moltisanti, brought spellbindingly to life by Alessandro Nivola in the leading role he’s always deserved. A “ghostly presence” looming over The Sopranos, as Taylor described it due to the character being dead long before the events of the show, Moltisanti was a constant reference point for various characters – especially Tony – as a shining example of the good ol’ days of the mob, days that are long gone by. He’s romanticised by the older, heavier, shorts-wearing mobsters of the early 2000’s as the dignity and panache that they all currently lack.
The plot mostly centres on Dickie, who we meet first in the late ‘60s and then early ‘70s as a charming gangster barely holding it all together amongst personal and political upheavals, and fighting off a growing threat in one of his old henchman, Harold (Leslie Odom Jr. as winning as ever) rising up with his own African-American gang after taking too much of the Italian-American’s crap. That’s the main plot of the movie – or at least you think it is, because one of The Many Saints of Newark’s flaws is that it tries telling too many stories, only doing justice to a few of its threads.
Nivola perhaps had a task harder than the actors filling the shoes of the old characters. Dickie has to both live up to the legend and surpass it with something more substantial, and for the most part he’s a triumph, providing the mix of sociopathy, violence and unexpected warmth to him that endeared Tony Soprano to millions, but in a way that makes him a fresh and essential character in the canon. It must be stressed that this is not a pure Tony Soprano origin tale, but it feels like one in some layer whenever you see Dickie; you instantly understand Tony through the man he idolised and deified and recklessly tried to emulate over the many years without him.
A prequel pitfall this film smartly avoids is to completely bridge the gap and put everyone neatly in their starting positions for where we originally knew them (see the ending of Revenge of the Sith as an example). It features many of the old crew for a look into what they were up to in the ‘60s/70s, although it rarely illuminates them – with the exception of Tony’s portrayal and Corey Stoll’s take on Uncle Junior that starts off workmanlike and familiar but builds on the character’s fundamentally simmering resentment to end with a shocking bit of filled mythology, that forever alters his place in the rest of the story.
They all nail the mannerisms and styles of their classic counterparts, but a lot of them are just there because we’re expecting them. Billy Magnussen and Samson Moeakiola snugly fit into the shoes of Paulie and Pussy respectively; and even if they’re not given anything to really do story-wise, it’s neat to see them. Vera Farmiga’s withering take on Livia Soprano has the late Nancy Marchand’s intonations down pat – and amusingly she’s made up to look and sound an interesting amount like Edie Falco (another example of The Many Saint’s of Newark’s perverse interest in Oedipal themes).
However, where it goes overboard is in John Magero’s evocation of Steven Van Zandt’s iconic Silvio; a man with such a defined pout and posture, Magero recreates it too well into the point of caricature – but at least he gets a quiet moment with Dickie towards the end that pushes the themes forward (and deliberately backwards) in a way that reflects the character’s inner sensitivity. It’s a tough scale, because I didn’t want the film to fruitlessly explain everyone’s backstory so you know the meaning behind every look and every haircut – I just wanted a good new story that had some of them show up in it, but the film sometimes stops dead in its tracks for the wink wink nudge nudge moments that, while often fun, don’t add anything beyond fan service.
There is a great example of something that threaded that line almost perfectly, and it isn’t even a film or a TV show. It’s Red Dead Redemption II, the video game prequel to the original 2010 game that had a completely new protagonist, but also managed to find time to naturally set off all the previous characters on the paths to where we first met them. Then again, it’s a 50-hour-plus game. Then again, The Sopranos is an 80-hour show. Then again, The Many Saints of Newark’s leading flaw is how it seems to conduct itself like a TV show, throwing multiple threads, characters and themes up into the air, but with only two hours to resolve them satisfyingly.
But to be clear: this is no TV movie. Taylor takes the recognisable milieu of the show and transports it beautifully and often thrillingly into a cinematic frame, with some notable grace notes. The ‘60s Newark riots, however brief, are realised with a scale and a punch not afforded to the show, and a shot of a character lying on a beach with the waves crashing over him and the sunset filtering out a lot of his coming to grips with a horrifying act of sudden violence, is just breathtaking. And the final shot is as brilliant as it is gut-wrenching as it is tragically inevitable, that comes just as the movie regains its footing for a finale that hits like a ton of bricks, whilst still making you slightly pine for more of that quality from what came before.
It coasts along amicably enough in its first hour, and then there’s a time jump, we’re in the ‘70s – and Michael Gandolfini arrives to inject the film with immensely renewed energy and bittersweetness. The baby-faced son of the late James Gandolfini is a genuine magic trick in the movie, and a piece of stunt casting that proves to be the film’s most successful gamble. Not only is he a dead ringer for his late father, but the way he carries himself and the way he speaks is like seeing a ghost. Because you are, in a way. This is Tony before he was utterly corrupted, and watching him for a great deal be a happy, kind teenager wanting to help people, go to college and make his family proud, packs so much of a punch when you know what happens down the line. It’s a beautiful performance, one of the few parts of the movie that change the way you view the show because you’ve seen the scars of the past.
The genius thing about the show is that it was never a sliding scale in terms of morality. Tony could do something heinous in one scene, then turn around and perform an act of genuine kindness and empathy in the second. Then he’d probably garrot some poor schmuck five minutes later, but the point is that, really up until the very end, it was never a given that Tony couldn’t change – or that he didn’t have a choice to. The best reason to see this film as a fan of The Sopranos is the heartbreak of knowing what kind of man this sweet, sensitive kid will become; the pathos of knowing that he’s unable to break the cycle that created him and is destined to cause as much pain as was wreaked by the older people in his life.
The ending of the first season finds Tony speaking some rare wisdom to his kids at a diner: “Someday soon, you’re gonna have families of your own, and if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments like this… that were good.” The pleasure and the pain of The Many Saints of Newark are the little moments that are both good, great, and fantastic, even if I wished it all came together as satisfyingly (or as satisfyingly unsatisfying) as the show. But at the same time, I’m going to see it again. David Chase’s choices have a habit of growing on you, so who knows, maybe it’ll grow on me. I hope so. And even if the final thing isn’t quite the rousing comeback that I wanted, I’m always glad to spend a little more time in this world (and with the strength of the cast I’d happily accept a sequel). Because if the stories and characters and final needle drop of The Sopranos tell us anything, it’s that no matter what, don’t stop—
The Many Saints of Newark is in theaters now.