‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Gives ‘The Sopranos’ a Darkly Nostalgic Backstory

Watching “The Many Saints of Newark” has the feel of flipping through a family album full of grainy, washed out photographs, where all of them hide unsettling family histories behind the smiles. It will certainly feel that way for fans of HBO’s iconic “The Sopranos.” This is a prequel to the influential TV mob drama, which aired from 1999 to 2007, winning awards and helping change the television landscape into what it is now. While always popular, “The Sopranos” has recently gained even greater cult status. David Chase, creator of the series and co-writer of this film, takes the risky choice of not making some direct sequel. He decides to travel back in time to the very origins of his characters, the result being a crime movie that will intrigue fans and provide satisfying entertainment for viewers who haven’t seen a single episode of the original. 

The setting, as in the show, is Newark, New Jersey. This time the action is set in 1967. Narrating is Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who you may recall met a tragic fate near the end of “The Sopranos.” But the center of the story is his father, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a member of the Italian-American mafia outfit that runs Newark. Dickie’s father, rough and traditionalist “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), has just returned from the old country with a younger bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). The Moltisantis inhabit a deceptively working class meets suburbia existence under the shadow of the wider DiMeo mob “family,” where crime provides them with nice houses and a tight, enclosed community. Dickie has been working with local Black gangsters like Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) to create an intricate crime network flowing, with an iron control of the numbers rackets. Dickie maneuvers through a circle that includes distant relatives by marriage, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal) and his father, Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll). Johnny Boy’s son, Tony (Michael Gandolfini), has a particular admiration for Dickie. The whole order threatens to unravel amid escalating racial tensions in Newark and inter-battles among the wise guys.

Fans will of course first wonder if “The Many Saints of Newark,” long in development and delayed by the pandemic, is as good as any episode of “The Sopranos.” For the absolute purist the answer will inevitably be a hard no. But groundbreaking pop art is always hard to follow or replicate. Chase’s show was an original mixture of classic mob story elements with psychological drama, satire and dark comedy. It endures as many things, ranging from allegory about American capitalism to just a brilliant family crime story. The late, great James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, fierce, hulking and sensitive, is a mob boss right up there with our great fictional crime villains like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone or Al Pacino’s Tony Montana. You won’t get any answers to the show’s infamous final episode, which cut to instant black as the Sopranos met at a diner to the sound of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,” denying us a definitive, ending fate for them. Instead, Chase has fashioned a movie with director Alan Taylor, who worked on the series, and co-writer Lawrence Konnor, another series veteran, to look at the roots of that darkness that eventually enveloped Tony. 

When it comes to movies spinning off TV, Chase has avoided the kind of massive disappointments on par with offerings like Chris Carter’s “The X-Files: I Want to Believe.” This is a decent, tight crime picture that is more about the people involved than the violence they practice. It’s a collection of intriguing, seedy profiles. On a wider, more original scope, Chase focuses primarily on tensions within immigrant and minority communities. The Italians work with the Blacks to keep the crime dollars coming in, but they do so with a cocky, racist tribalism. Dickie is a sharp business mind who really sees Harold as a friend, even when his wise guy cohorts crack racist jokes. With riots breaking out in the summer of ‘67 over the arrest of a Black man by the cops, the tensions become more acute and Harold starts becoming influenced by the Black Power movement. He starts translating this newfound dignity into the desire to run his own criminal enterprise independent of the Italians. Why should Black operators need to always be making money for their prejudiced superiors, who are all immigrants anyway? Lazier crime films never explore such topics.

There are indeed many mob clichés in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Tough guys in suits meet around funeral parlors, quite a few people get shot in late night drive-bys, and it’s rare to find a faithful husband. If there is one distinct similarity with the show, it’s in how Chase still adds a deeper polish to the material. Despite its rowdy humor, and there is some in the movie, “The Sopranos” never romanticized its underworld. There is a sadness that lingers over these memories, captured in the sepia-tinged, hazy cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Dickie visits his father’s brother in prison, claiming he wants to do good deeds. He will help his uncle with whatever he needs, he tries to be a role model for Tony, and he tries to be kind to Giuseppina. The hypocrisy of his life only creates toxic results, because like many criminals, his moments of charity are like an excuse to continue extorting and killing. Everyone is infected. Johnny Boy wants to promote family values while raging over new Black neighbors, and he’s mercilessly cruel to wife Livia (Vera Farmiga). When Dickie starts having an affair with Giuseppina it’s a portrait of senseless choices and shallow jealousies.

The casting works well because it isn’t just an attempt at finding who looks exactly like the original cast. Michael Gandolfini is a fantastic choice, not only because he obviously resembles his father, but because he does bring out the tragedy of the character. Tony is smart, likes sports and books, and has potential for going to college. But he admires the wrong people, like Dickie, because it’s all that surrounds him. His mother offers little relief because she’s bitter and lonely. Vera Farmiga is great as Livia, because we see in her the younger version of the vicious virago from the TV show. Gandolfini’s casting could have easily been scoffed at because of his last name connection to the franchise. Instead it has a real resonance. Some of the purely entertaining moments of the movie have that feel of being able to go back in time and watch your relatives as their younger selves, when who they became later manifests itself in even fiercer ways. Corey Stoll’s Junior Soprano is just as bafoonish and violently cunning as the elderly thug of the series. There’s Silvio Dante, played with hilarious absurdity by John Magaro, just as vain about his hair. Of course there’s Pussy Bonpensiero, played by Samson Moeakiola, just as obedient, without having risen yet in the Soprano ranks. Tony’s sister Janice (Alexandra Intrator) is also here, trying out hippie clothing, before the broken, dark woman we meet years later.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is a mafia film where in a way the crime takes a back seat to what such a legacy actually does to the descendants. For those who have seen the show, it’s the ultimate dissection of why Tony, Janice, Livia and Christopher turned out as they did. David Chase could have prepared some “The Sopranos” Greatest Hits package. His interest is in exploring the characters from a new angle. It’s not a masterpiece in terms of mob movies, but it’s also not a failure. It’s a good movie about family trees, with roots that should have been dug out before they caused any more pain and bloodshed.

The Many Saints of Newark” releases Oct. 1 on HBO Max and theaters nationwide.