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The Many Saints of Newark (A Movie Review)


Starring Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi, John Magaro, Samson Moeakiola, Alexandra Intrator, Joey Diaz, Nick Vallelonga, Daryl Edwards, Gabriella Piazza, Chase Vacnin, Lesli Margherita, Mattea Conforti and the voice of Michael Imperioli.

Screenplay by David Chase and Lawrence Konner.

Directed by Alan Taylor.

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. 120 minutes. Rated R.

It has been over 14 years since The Sopranos – arguably one of the best TV dramas ever – ended its six-season run with an infamously ambiguous fade to black. While the series finale has been the subject of controversy ever since, it did achieve its goal. It kept people wondering what happened to Tony Soprano and the rest of his world.

Always leave the people wanting more? Fuhgeddaboudit!

After years of insisting that he had no interest in revisiting that world – particularly after the tragic death of star James Gandolfini in 2013 – series creator David Chase finally stumbled upon an idea to return to these characters and situations, but to do it in a novel way. Prequel! Let’s take a look at the people and the situations which molded Tony Soprano and turned him into the ruthless mobster and flawed man that he would later become.

The Many Saints of Newark takes place in two defining periods in Tony’s life – in 1967, when he is an eleven-year-old boy experiencing crime and consequences firsthand, and in the early 1970s (probably 1972 or 1973) when he is an awkward teen starting to come into his own in an explosive family.

It is a very nice touch that teenaged Tony Soprano is played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of late Sopranos star James, who played the same character as a man.

Keep in mind, The Many Saints of Newark is not really Tony’s story – although he is always on the outskirts, watching and learning. There are many characters in this colorful universe – many of whom we met later in life in The Sopranos – but probably the main character is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), small-time mob boss and father of series lead Christopher. (Dickie never appeared in The Sopranos, but he was mentioned several times as Chris’ dad and Tony’s mentor. Christopher only appears in the movie as a toddler and in voiceover as a modern adult.)

So, The Sopranos are back, at least sort of. The question remains – will The Many Saints of Newark live up to the high standards that the series engendered? It’s a heck of a lot harder to distill a story into two hours than having six years and something like 86 hours to allow the characters to live and breathe and come alive in the imagination.

As it turns out, The Many Saints of Newark would have made a better-than-average two-episode flashback arc on the old series. It’s not at the level of the classic episodes, however, it is well done and mostly very intriguing. And it fills in some of the holes in the audience’s understanding of what made Tony Soprano tick.

Plus, it has many Easter eggs for the hardcore fans. Not all of them work – Billy Magnussen’s attempts to imitate Tony Sirico’s inimitable mannerisms as a young Paulie Walnuts come off as a little stilted – however most of them do.

More importantly, the movie takes on the suddenly white-hot subject of race relations, revolving – at least in the first half – around the 1967 Newark race riots. It is a subject that the series probed, but it never dug so deep into the dark subject matter of racial discrimination.

However, the crux of the matter – and what the fans really want – is to show their favorite characters before they completely became those characters. It mostly works – Vera Farmiga does a terrific approximation of Livia Soprano before she is completely jaded, although her performance does not reach the levels of the late Nancy Marchand’s iconic work in the same role on the series. Corey Stoll of House of Cards also gets the basics right as Uncle Junior however he is much more buttoned down than Dominic Chianese’s version of the same role would become.

And young Gandolfini, with some very, very big shoes to fill, comes up with a rather nuanced and different read on the role of Tony Soprano than his father – although you can see the roots of what Tony was to become in the performance.

In the long run, that is both the blessing and the curse of The Many Saints of Newark. It has such finely sketched characters which are indelibly etched in the public’s mind that it will always have trouble keeping up. Which is probably why Chase was avoiding going back to Newark in the first place.

Still, if The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it is still a good gangster story and a nostalgic rush.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: September 30, 2021.

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