The Sopranos has quite the legacy, eh? David Chase’s show about North Jersey mobsters nearly invented appointment TV, immortalized ged outta heah, and gave Journey renewed radio play.
Now we got a movie and it’s about the before times. And I ain’t talking about life in 2019. Nah, this is old, old school. About life in Newark before Devils hockey came to town. In The Many Saints of Newark, devils of a different type abound.
David Chase’s movie is entertaining enough crime drama. The film fleshes out the Moltisanti family, gives background to the DiMeo Jersey mafia, and even provides insight to Junior Soprano’s whining – not to mention murderous – ways. But this ain’t the expected Tony Soprano: Episode One. Instead, The Many Saints of Newark is like getting a single White Castle slider instead of a full-on pork sausage sandwich from Satriale’s.
If you solely want to see Jimmy Ganoldfini’s son pick up a gun and start puffing on a cigar like his old man, you’re gonna be a little disappointed. The Many Saints of Newark is all about the Moltisantis, particularly Christopher’s old man, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola). Yeah, sure, you get young Anthony as a boy, and again as a teen getting in trouble – more on that later – but mostly this tale is about Dickie getting a handle on being a boss, a husband, a lover, and, yes, an uncle.
Dickie is charming. Life is decent for the guy. Professionally and personally. He’s got a nightclub. He’s got a convertible. His girlfriend was a former beauty queen back in the Old Country. Then the 1967 riots erupt directly in his face. Life in Newark suddenly becomes dangerous as not only are African Americans protesting for their undeniable civil rights, but Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), a black man with his own plans, crosses paths with the DiMeo Family. Dickie has to deal with his growing family, his wanting mistress, a flaring gang war, and, of course, his favorite nephew, Tony.
Tony sees the life his uncle represents and tries his hand at it – stealing a Mister Softee truck being the highlight of his criminal career, and of the movie. When he realizes there are downsides to such a lifestyle, Tony backs out – until his uncle slowly pulls him back in. And the parallels between the Sopranos and the Corleones have never been deeper.
Alan Taylor is no stranger to The Sopranos. Or to HBO for that matter. Although he is still confused when it comes to Asgard. With that, Taylor directs the movie like an episode. His work is efficient and gives light to the actors and their performance. The editing is fast, although not entirely perfect. Taylor and director of photography Kramer Morgenthau present the movie with various shades of dark and light and occasionally has the camera sneak around, like you’re an unwilling voyeur on an unsuspecting hit. But you’re watching an episode of The Sopranos, so of course you are an intensely willing voyeur. Capish?
This is truly Alessandro Nivola’s movie and he owns it, man. Akin to Gandolfini’s Tony, Nivola pulls off the entire range of Italian pride: joy and anger, love and sorrow. Nivola’s career is a long and deep one, but as a lead man, Many Saints is his lifetime achievement.
Michael Gandolfini nails his sorely-missed father’s silent mannerisms and like him can shoot from calm teen angst into explosive, all-too adult power. You can see the beginnings of his destined life. Some of the others, though? Like John Magaro’s Silvio and Billy Magnussen’s Paulie, are all spot on impressions but ones that quickly fall into parody. Given time, they could grow. So, C’mon, HBO, let’s get a Sopranos: Year One mini-series going.
The rest of the lead cast are all-stars who prove their professionalism. Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano and Vera Farmiga as Livia conjure new life into their characters. Corey Stoll develops Junior into the perfect whiner. Ray Liotta plays two elder Moltisanti brothers with the same gravitas that he brought to Goodfellas. Leslie Odom’s Harold is smooth and cunning and there was not enough of him.
And Michael Imperioli, Christopher Moltisanti himself, bookmarks the movie with a narration-from-the-grave. This ain’t no Stand By Me romanticized memoir either. He’s angry with Tony for killing him. He wants to spit on witnessing these beginnings. And there needed to be much more of this. Imperioli should have narrated the entire story with all of his pissed-off, wannabe-screenwriter torment. Rage needed to be thrown into these tellings. Instead, Many Saints merely falls into the genre tread that Scorsese and Coppola previously ground out.
The Many Saints of Newark was a good Sopranos episode but falls way short of being an outta-body movie experience. Chase’s story straddles that of an origin expose and a mob movie set during turbulent times; neither element getting its deserved spotlight. The gang war between former friends Dickie Moltisanti and Harold McBrayer was too loose and lacked that dreaded connectivity. Likewise insight on Johnny and Tony Soprano, that which fans want above all else, is often times forgotten.
The Sopranos was always – always! – about family. And not, you know, “The Family” but about family life. About the trials of living as a man, in the suburbs, with teenage kids, and a group of friends that sometimes get you in trouble but most of the times make you laugh. About grilling in the yard, drinking whiskey, and watching ducks in your pool. The Many Saints of Newark tried to present a piece of that life but was unnecessarily confusing and certainly did not give service to what fans wanted. Other than having “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3 close out the movie, setting the stage for Tony Soprano’s eventual rise.
Aldo Moltisanti, in his prison blues and gray hair, tells Dickie that pain comes from always wanting things. And as entertaining as Many Saints was, a lot of Sopranos fans are feeling that pain.