“The Many Saints of Newark” is not “The Sopranos,” but it’s still good

Streaming recommendation of the week 10/8/21


Courtesy of HBO

Many familiar faces from “The Sopranos” return, albeit played by new actors in this prequel film. Photo Credit: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.

TJ Disabato, Staff Writer

Nearly 15 years after the infamous cut to black in the finale to “The Sopranos,” David Chase has returned to give an earlier look at the series that first gave him fame. Fans of “The Sopranos” have been frothing at the mouth since 2007 to see more of their favorite New Jersey crime family, and the wait ended on Friday, Oct. 1. Released on HBO Max and in theaters, “The Many Saints of Newark” takes place in late 1960s and early 1970s Newark, centering on the Newark Riots and the life of a young Tony Soprano. This is a strange addition to the movie when considering the plotline of “The Sopranos,” but writer David Chase said he had always wanted to write a piece about the Newark Riots, so he decided to expand upon his previous work with a prequel to “The Sopranos.”

The film focuses on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Dickie is a character we only ever hear mentioned in “The Sopranos” when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is talking to Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) about his late father. Starring James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, as a young Tony Soprano, the film centers around the relationship between a young Tony and his uncle Dickie, mirroring Tony’s relationship with Dickie’s son, Christopher, in the original series.

I had read mixed reviews before going to see the film on Saturday with a couple of friends. However, I have become such a loyal fan of the series that I have convinced myself that even the less entertaining episodes are filmed that way for a reason—my trust in David Chase may be bordering on obsessive, so I could be biased. Let me start off first by saying that the casting was nearly phenomenal throughout. The role of a young Silvio Dante (John Magaro) felt too theatrical, even considering Steven Van Zandt’s colorful original portrayal in “The Sopranos.” The movie’s two main bright spots were Ray Liotta as Dickie’s father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, and his twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti. I was confused and slightly appalled when I first saw Ray Liotta playing two different characters, but the nuances in his two portrayals made me reevaluate my feelings.

The second and brightest star of the movie is, without an iota of doubt in my mind, Vera Farmiga, who plays a younger version of Tony’s mother, Livia Soprano. In the first two seasons of “The Sopranos,” before Nancy Marchand’s unfortunate passing, we saw Livia come to life as an abusive, manipulative and toxic creature who turned Tony into the sociopath he is. Vera Farmiga brings Livia’s sharp tongue to the big screen, showcasing her most vile traits, whether she is offhandedly referring to violence, totally disregarding the welfare of her own children or screaming and throwing pans during her husband’s welcome-home-from-jail party. One of the hardest parts about watching “The Sopranos” is getting to the point where Livia’s character had to be killed off, but getting to see her younger self felt just as fulfilling. 

Michael Gandolfini came off as a very believable younger Tony Soprano, living up to his father’s performance. Here we see a Tony who has not been completely turned onto the idea of living a life of crime, still having other ambitions, even considering a professional football career. Corey Stoll portrays a young Uncle Junior in a way that makes me reanalyze the character I came to know during the series. Without spoiling the movie, all I can say is that it will make you look at the original series, and the character dynamics within, in a new light. Junior’s brother (and Tony’s father) “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal) did not play nearly as big a role as I was expecting. By the time the series began, Tony’s father had already passed, and Tony only mentions how proud he was to be his son. I was hoping to see more interaction between a younger Tony and his father, but perhaps this lack of interaction speaks even more to why Tony becomes the way he does. I guess you can only fit so much dialogue into a two-hour movie. Even as is, the film comes off as overstuffed and would have likely worked better as a television miniseries or even a film series. David Chase recently signed a five-year deal to release more movies, so hopefully, he will continue to add to this universe.

The inclusion of the Newark Riots adds context to the original series as well, but ultimately the plot is not a complete success. The movie does a great job of introducing African American characters, something the original show was lacking in. Another main character in the movie is Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a character never mentioned in the series. Harold works during the Newark Riots to help some of his family break free from their work with our favorite New Jersey crime family. A major plot point towards the end of the movie involving Harold serves to reveal more about Dickie, a character whose life isn’t explored in detail during the original series. This is where my main gripe, and the gripe of many other fans, comes into play. The movie seems to focus on three different main characters—Tony, Dickie and Harold—but their story is not interwoven and doesn’t resolve satisfyingly. I would follow David Chase to the ends of the Earth, so maybe he left it ambiguous in the same way as he did for the end of the original series. Or perhaps he plans on continuing the film franchise with more focus on other characters. Regardless, the plot did not live up to that seen for 86 episodes from 1999 to 2007.

All in all, it was a good movie. When I left the movie theater, my jaw was on the floor (in a good way). But now that I have had time to think about it, and be influenced by what other people are saying, I understand where some of the negative reviews are coming from. I still have to give it an 8 out of 10, because it is very well done. If you are a diehard “Sopranos” fan, do not watch this movie expecting it to be exactly like the series. The dark macabre humor from the original carries over well, but not everything is the same across the board. For those who haven’t seen “The Sopranos,” all six seasons are currently streaming on HBO Max, and “The Many Saints of Newark” will be available on HBO Max as well through October.