The Many Saints of Newark

As Kramer Morgenthau’s (“Respect”) camera pans a graveyard, slowing on familiar names engraved on stones, Christopher Moltisanti (voice of Michael Imperioli, the only Sopranos' actor in the prequel) remembers the people who preceded him, like his dad, 'Dickie' Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), who would act as a father to the man who would both regard Christopher as a nephew and choke him to death.  They were “The Many Saints of Newark.”

Laura's Review: B

The long-awaited movie prequel to HBO’s ‘The Sopranos’ series produced and written by creator David Chase with Lawrence Konner and directed by ‘Sopranos’ Emmy winner Alan Taylor is like a goomar – a showy accessory without the psychological depth of the actual Family.  While there are many aspects of the film to enjoy unreservedly, chief among them the performances of Nivola, Vera Farmiga and Michael Gandolfini, the film is choppy, often feeling like a television commercial should be inserted between one scene and the next.  Chase also leans too heavily on “The Godfather” and Scorsese, a non-English speaking bride brought back from Italy just as Janice Soprano (Alexandra Intrator) chooses Apollonia as her Confirmation saint, a smash cut from “Goodfellas’” Ray Liotta into a Rolling Stones song.  If you are looking for just why Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano, you’ll find more to muddy the waters than clear them here, although the film does a wonderful job analyzing Tony’s mother Livia (played brilliantly by Vera Farmiga, whose nose prosthetic makes her look uncannily like Edie Falco, a creepy bit of psychological serendipity which, if planned, is the most revealing thing about the adult Tony).

While many of the series’ characters appear in younger renditions, those outside of Tony’s immediate family are mostly around for name checking color, Silvio (John Magaro, "First Cow") and his toupee getting the most action.  This film belongs to Dicki Moltisanti whose complicated relationship with his father Aldo 'Hollywood Dick' Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), including lust for his newly imported stepmother Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), leads to multiple tragedies, one of which is conveniently covered up by the 1967 Newark race riots.  Dicki is introduced trying to deal with the Black Saints gang stealing from Dickie's numbers runners, Newark’s black neighborhood overseen by his old high school football buddy Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.).  Meanwhile Harold is beginning to chafe at his status and is plotting to take over his numbers racket for himself.  That things will get personal is hinted at early but handled patchily, with the exception of Harold’s right hand man Cyril (Germar Terrell Gardner) who suffers this film’s most gorily realized payback.

Dicki, who has inherited his dad’s movie star looks and has style to spare, is a conflicted man, one who finds his own spiritual Dr. Melfi in his father’s estranged brother (also Liotta), long imprisoned for having murdered a made man.  Dicki confides in his Uncle Sal, telling him he wants to be ‘good’ and ‘atone,’ a confession the steely eyed Sal responds to by requesting a Miles Davis album and hinting that he suspects more about Dicki’s guilt than Dicki has relayed.  Uncle Sal also gives Dicki some sound advice about Dicki’s adoring ‘nephew,’ but it will be countered later by a well meaning Silvio.

As for Tony Soprano?  He’s played in the first hour by William Ludwig, a chubby kid with dreams of becoming a football player, his bedroom wall adorned with posters of Johnny Unitas and Alfred E. Neuman.  Michael Gandolfini comes into play in the second hour, a kid who witnesses the return of his abusive dad, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), from prison and worries about his endlessly unhappy mother so much, he asks Dickie to procure Elavil, a drug he’s seen in a ‘mother’s little helper’ ad, for her.  The worst thing we witness Tony do is hijack a Mr. Softee truck with a couple of buddies to distribute free ice cream to younger kids.  The best scene about his surroundings’ psychological impact is between his school principal, Mrs. Jarecki (Talia Balsam, "South Mountain"), convinced of both his intelligence and leadership skills, and his mother, dismissive during the meeting but shamed enough to try and compensate with studied affection (something, it turns out, she is just simply not able to).

Truthfully, a movie could have been made about Dicki Montisanti under any other name and it would have been a solid genre film, Nivola’s Jeckyll and Hyde a gangster’s rendition of beauty and the beast.  Magaro’s capture of Van Sant’s Silvio borders on impersonation with “Into the Woods’” Billy Magnussen’s Paulie 'Walnuts' mostly providing color.  Large square black-framed glasses go a long ways toward turning Corey Stoll into Uncle Junior, although he comes into his own along with his character’s influence.  Gandolfini has obviously studied his father’s character, incorporating his physical bearing and sideways glances artfully.  It is Vera Farmiga, though, who through both the writing of her character and her own formidable take comes the closest to bringing ‘The Sopranos’ experience back to life.

Robin's Review: B

Young Tony (Michael Gandolfini) grew up in the turbulent 1960s in Newark as the son of mob boss Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano, The city is undergoing radical racial changes and the status quo of mob rule is being challenged in “The Many Saints of Newark.”

For the years it was on TV, I was, like so many, a big fan of “The Sopranos.” But, the series ended in 2007 so it has been nearly 15 years since we raptly watched the Tony Soprano story. This poses two problems: one for the fans of the original and one for those unfamiliar with the mobster’s story.

For us, the fans, it has been far too long since I even thought about the Soprano family and those drawn to it. Remember, there were a boatload of characters introduced over the years of the series and this is the problem. In rapid fire manner, all of the players, though some are new, are reintroduced but in their younger form. As such, I wasted a lot of my time trying to match them with their later, older selves.

For the uninitiated to the Soprano Saga, do not try to binge watch the series to “prep” you for the movie. Just the opposite, the newbie viewer should go into “The Many Saints of Newark” cold and let the story and the characters wash over you. THEN, watch “The Sopranos” and enjoy with the pre-knowledge the film gives you.

The “Sopranos” stigma set up too many expectations for the initiated when going into it fresh would have given us a good, period piece and family crime drama. I am afraid that I am one who, consciously or not, had expectations.

Trying to look at “The Many Saints,,,” with an unjaundiced eye is a little tough, That said, the story, with its many, sometimes too many, characters tries to cover a lot of ground as it trots all the young faces we only knew when older.

Director Alan Taylor, working with a script by Lawrence Konner based on the many characters developed by David Chase, does a serviceable job marshalling the huge cast through the story’s paces. As such, I remembered, through the fog of time, some of my favorite characters, though now much younger.

Nancy Marchand, as family matriarch and mother of Tony, Livia Soprano, has her role “pre-visited” by Vera Farmaga, who does the character perfectly as mob wife and protective mother. The rest of the cast is a who’s who and includes Michael Gandolfini as young Tony, the promising scion of the Soprano family and mob thug in training.

My advice to the fan and potential fan – ignore the hype, enjoy the movie and, if you are still interested, binge on “The Sopranos.” Keep in mind, though, that you will be committing to 86 episodes, so have fun.

Warner Brothers releases "The Many Saints of Newark" in theaters and on HBO Max (only with the $14.99/month ad free plan for 31 days) on 10/1/21.