As strange as it might seem to do a prequel to a series that ended almost 15 years ago, Many Saints Of Newark proves that it’s possible to add to a beloved series by delivering another chapter in The Sopranos story and actually making it pretty bloody great. The people behind this film are the same people behind the series and through them, we get something that blends near perfectly into the show and adds context, revelations, and history to an already phenomenal piece of television.
Quick note: The series is basically required viewing since they spoil some pretty big moments right from the very first scene as well as a lot of missed reference and character relationships needing that context before going into this film.
Taking place over the 60s and 70s, the film covers a variety of stories from around this point in The Sopranos history including the 67 Newark Race Riots, Anthony Sopranos (Michael Gandolfini) first experiences with the New Jersey crime families, but mostly the focus is on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of Christopher Moltisanti, as he starts to question his moral choices in a city that’s burning like hellfire around him.
Starting with the return of his father, Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) from Italy, bringing his young new wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) with him, Dickie is instantly smitten by the Italian beauty but struggles between his loyalty to his family and his unchecked emotional outbursts. At the same time, The DiMeo crime family is struggling to keep New Jersey in check thanks to systematic racism in the police department and a volatile race riot tearing the city apart. Stuck in the middle of this is Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), lone black soldier in the DiMeo family army who answers directly to Dickie and starting to wonder if his loyalties lie with his employers, or with his people.
And to the sidelines of it all, a young Anthony Soprano, stuck between his narcissistic mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) and his volatile absent father Johnny (Jon Bernthal), starts looking up to his Uncle Dickie for guidance regarding both the legal and illegal sides of his family, unknowingly setting himself on the path to become Tony Soprano, the man we love and hate.
That might seem like a lot to cover in just two hours but the film manages to pull it off quite well, the main focus is on Dickie, he is far and away the main character and it’s his arc we follow, his attempts to better himself whilst struggling against his naturally violent nature that make for the main drive of the film. That alone would be enough to satisfy fans of the series since we got very little back-story on Dickie – the ending especially brings a new level to the characters involved – but the additional material helps solidify the whole film as something pretty amazing. The racial tensions building in New Jersey not only added legitimacy thanks to the real race riots of 1967 but offer a brand new voice to The Soprano’s world in form of Harold McBrayer and his turn against the DiMeo Family and his fractured friendship with Dickie. Whilst the origins of Tony Soprano add yet more depth to one of television’s most layered and fascinating characters.
I will say right off, the ending does leave quite a lot still on the table, while enough is covered to round out the film, I do feel like this is the start of more to come and based on the quality of this film, I hope more does come.
Character work is interesting because a lot of these characters we already know and love and I’ll say right now, the returning characters are played VERY well. John Magaro who plays Silvio Dante absolutely nails the exaggerated swagger of Van Zandt whilst maintaining the balance between hilarious and menacing. Corey Stroll brings back the short-tempered wrath of Uncle Junior, playing him as a narrow-minded man living under the shadow more favored soldiers like Dickie and his brother Johnny. And Farmiga reminds me what an absolute C-Word Livia Soprano was and why I utterly detested her in the series, matching her victim complex, her narcissism and her ability to turn everything into an insult against her, it’s a great role for Farmiga but goddamn did I hate her in this.
Jon Bernthal’s turn as Johnny Soprano was pretty bang-on how I expected the Soprano father to be, charismatic and funny but also volatile, mean and dead-set racist. This isn’t a big role for Berthal since Johnny isn’t the focus on the film, but he takes the little we know about Johnny and brings about his portrayal into the canon quite well, showing shades of who Tony will be and who he learned not to be.
Speaking of, Michael Gandolfini’s portrayal of his father’s iconic character manages to balance the line between being recognizable as the adult Tony, whilst still remaining Michael’s own thing. When we first meet Anthony as a young kid – played by William Ludwig – he’s still naïve to the criminal underworld but he’s taking on some of the negative traits of his father, he’s smoking, taking bets at school, being an all around little brat who acts tough because that’s all he knows. As he ages up in the film, we see a young man who could do great thing outside of the criminal enterprise, he wants to play professional football, he wants to have his own life. But the combination of his shitty homelife, bad guidance by his Uncle Dickie and an inability to apply himself all factor into making him the man he will become. It’s a slow process but Michael does wonders with it, we see him play a much softer, more vulnerable Tony trying to figure out his place in the family business, but as the film goes on, we see start to see James Gandolfini come out and the makings of Tony Soprano take hold.
The new characters also make a hell of an impact and fit brilliantly into the series. Liotta turns what could’ve been stunt casting as Aldo Moltisanti into one of his best performances in years, portraying a slimy dirt bag that makes you feel sick just watching him onscreen before taking on a more subdued approach later on in the film for reasons I won’t spoil here.
Newcomer Rossi impresses as Aldo’s young new bride Giuseppina, an Italian woman brought over by the glitz and glamour of America, only to find that her fancy new life is pretty shit. Much like Liotta, Rossi turns what could’ve been a fairly nothing character into something that stands out from the crowd, there’s an innate tragedy to Giuseppina, her isolation from friends due to her lack of English and her abusive relationship with Aldo is what pushes her to find companionship in Dickie despite technically being his step-mother – Oedipus making a fine return to the franchise. And while she finds comfort being a goomah, her drive to be her own woman clashes with the mafia ideal of a trophy girlfriend who just stands around and looks pretty. Giuseppina is always looking for more from her life but she’s trapped in the hyper-masculine world of the mafia and that takes her to brilliant and terrifying places, Rossi is a great find and her ability to make you instantly sympathize with her is key to making her character work.
Hamilton breakout Odom Jr takes on the new role of Harold McBrayer, originally a foot-soldier in the DiMeo crime family, the rise in racial tensions and black oppression force McBrayer to start questioning his role in the family, if he’s treated as an equal or if he’s helping the oppressors by shaking down black business. Out of everyone I feel like Harold could’ve used more screentime, his decision to start his own enterprise makes sense as many black people were taking the chance to step out from under the foot of Whitey and make it on their own. But opening going against the DiMeo family, people he knows are violent and dangerous, that left some questions hanging, especially since I would’ve liked to have seen more scenes between him and Dickie. Of course none of this takes away from Odom’s performance, giving Harold a rare sense of righteous calm in this volatile criminal world although he wasn’t afraid to show his strength if he had to survive.
Rounding out the cast was Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti, and off-topic, this guy has had a great career turnaround, going from the dumbass Billy from Jurassic Park 3, to loveable dickhead Gavin in the Goal films, now to playing a historical character in a legendary series and giving a phenomenal performance. Much like Tony in the main series, we get the sense that Dickie is a bad man who wants to do good things, but he’s too deep into the criminal lifestyle to change, it’s almost tragic in a way how we’ll see moments where Dickie will be kind or funny or even hopeful as shown in one dream sequence with a baseball team, but then his temper will get the best of him and he’ll lash out in a truly ugly fashion, almost as if he can’t help himself.
What makes Dickie great is that because he’s dead before the series starts, Nivola is allowed to play him as completely his own character, filled with his own angers, his own fears, his own regrets. But at the same time, there’s a sense that Dickie is becoming increasingly aware that his number is coming up, that all the bad things he’s done in life are catching up on him and he’s sending his nephew Anthony and his son Christopher down the same path that he now wants to get off of. Nivola plays Dickie not so much as a man coming to terms with his morality, but a man understanding that morality is a finite thing and is trying to change for the better and failing at every step because better is not who he is. In one film, Nivola manages to develop a character that you can see the traits that Tony and Christopher inhabit in the series whilst also remaining his own, broken character, it’s fantastic work and a more than welcome addition to The Sopranos cast of characters.
With series veteran Alan Taylor in the directing chair and creator David Chase handling the script, the people behind the show are back and they clearly remember what made The Sopranos so great. At times the film feels like a polished version of the show – which is natural given the advance in technology – but that’s to the film’s benefit, it fits so neatly back into the aesthetic of the show that you’d swear they never left that mindset. Between the ultra-violence, the conflicting morals and the amazing soundtrack featuring greats from the 70s like Rolling Stones, Jackson 5, Gil Scott-Heron and a fantastic needle-drop in the final scene, it’s like the 15 year gap has been nothing and the creators have picked up right where they left off.
What works in the film’s favor is how it balances the old with the new, for fans of the series the reference can be fun to pick up on, ranging from namedrops to a great choice for narrator and what they added to the overall story to one full recreation of a scene from the first series which I enjoyed immensely. Some of the references do land better than others, there’s one scene with baby Christopher and Tony which is a little too on the nose but it fits the themes of corruption and unavoidable violence that Dickie’s arc follows, aside from that the references are a nice little cherry on top of a stellar story.
The film clearly has an increased budget to the show and the film utilizes it well, the first act showing the Newark Riots are as manic as they are impressive, bringing in destruction, mayhem and the National Goddamn Guard to the streets. It’s clearly a major point in New Jersey history and the film does its best to give it the attention it deserves, and while the film never reaches that same level of immensity again, it’s a reminder that the world of The Sopranos encompasses the harsh reality of our own.
It might sound strange that a film has its biggest scene in the first act but it actually works to the film’s advantage, by showcasing the world-building at the start and setting up the stage for racial tension, family dynamics and good ol’ ultra-violence. The film can spend the rest of its time focusing on the characters and their relationships, be it the tumultuous relationship between Anthony and Livia, the conflicting relationship between Dickie and Giuseppina or the fracturing relationships between Dickie and Harold or Dickie and Anthony.
What Taylor and Chase manage to do is allow each of these relationships to be given ample time to grow – save for maybe Harold’s character but he’s pushed to the sidelines in the second half of the film anyway – whilst still managing to keep the story moving. With Dickie being the center of attention, it’s his growing inner conflict which affects his relationship with the people around him and what drives the film forward, his desire to be a better man clashes with his violent father, his inability to prevent his own violence clashes with his awkward affair with Giuseppina. Surprisingly it’s his relationship with Anthony which provides the most interesting development, at first Dickie eases him into the criminal styling of the DiMeo family, but once his morals catch up with him, his attempts to distance himself set up a self-fulfilling prophecy that kicks Anthony onto his downfall towards joining the family. Granted knowing where Anthony goes does help but that’s the point of a prequel, to see how characters grow into who we know them as, and Dickie’s place in The Sopranos history for the growth of Anthony and later Christopher is key to their development in the series.
For anyone worried about an overdue prequel to a long finished series can have their fears forgotten, The Many Saints Of Newark is a welcome entry into The Sopranos canon and a fantastic addendum to the series. The history of Dickie Moltisanti and his inner conflict amidst a world torn apart by racism, sexism and hatred carries itself alongside the power of the show, the characters both old and new are played fantastically with special mentions to Nivola, Rossi and especially Gandolfini for what they bring to their roles. With the combined efforts of Taylor and Chase returning to their beloved franchise with familiar themes of moral ambiguity, fractured parental relationships and unavoidable violence shows that not only is the power of The Sopranos still as strong as ever, but there’s plenty of room for it to return.
I am giving The Many Saints of Newark a 4 ½ out of 5 Hairpieces!
The Many Saints of Newark hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday, October 1st.
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