David Chase’s ‘Sopranos’ Prequel ‘The Many Saints of Newark’: Film Review

Michael Gandolfini steps into his late father’s shoes as the teenage Tony Soprano, with Alessandro Nivola as the uncle he idolizes in this dive into events that predate the series.

Epilogue movies to canonical cable dramas Breaking Bad and Deadwood have been welcomed in recent years as rewards for fans still hungry for more. A prequel to a series as idiosyncratic as it was influential, which ushered in the Peak TV age, is a more complicated prospect. Coming 14 years after the final episode of The Sopranos first aired — with debate around its ambiguous ending ensuring the show’s immortality — The Many Saints of Newark is an absorbing detour into the family backstory on which the David Chase series was built. But it provides little in the way of fresh illumination.

Efficiently directed by Alan Taylor, who won an Emmy for his work on the HBO series, and written by Chase with Lawrence Konner, the film, for better or worse, defies expectations of what a prequel to The Sopranos would appear to promise. Meaning this is not a close look at the formative years of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. At least not directly.

The Many Saints of Newark

The Bottom Line

Entertaining but inessential.

Release date: Friday, Oct. 1
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Michela De Rossi, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriters: David Chase, Lawrence Konner, based on characters created by Chase

Rated R,
2 hours

Played as a kid by William Ludwig and in his teens by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, Tony is mostly a sideline observer in a story about his ambitious Uncle Dickie (Alessandro Nivola). The latter is a character remembered fondly by Tony in the series as a beloved mentor, but long since dispatched before those migrating ducks landed in the Soprano family’s swimming pool in one of the sharpest pilots ever produced.

The movie is narrated from beyond the grave by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), whose surname translates from the Italian as “many saints,” hence the title. The opening shot is a slow pan across a graveyard of chatty headstones, hinting at the everlasting spiritual dimension of a series haunted by remembrances of the dead.

In that sense, Chase’s unconventional idea for a prequel makes sense, visiting the lives of those who made way for Tony’s rise in the “waste management” organization, rather than attempting to get around the insurmountable absence of James Gandolfini with a continuation of the story. While the film in general has fewer of the droll laughs that rippled through the show, even at its most vicious, there’s gallows humor in Christopher’s casual mention that Tony — a surrogate father who became increasingly burdened by his protégé’s addiction issues and erratic behavior — choked him to death.

That nod to an absolute stunner of a scene in the “Kennedy and Heidi” episode of season six encapsulates the odds against The Many Saints of Newark ever being much more than Goodfellas Lite.

Chase’s extraordinary gift for complex character and story evolutions over long arcs can’t possibly pack the same power in a condensed two-hour format. Part of what made The Sopranos such sensational TV drama was the extent to which it made us care about reprehensible people, and there just isn’t the breathing space or depth of character here to generate that kind of emotional investment.

That’s not to say Nivola isn’t compelling as Christopher’s slick father, Dickie Moltisanti, a dapper Rat Pack-type figure in well-cut suits who runs the late-’60s numbers racket out of the North Ward of Newark, New Jersey. Dickie relies on his former high school football teammate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) as an enforcer to collect payments in Newark’s predominantly Black Central Ward.

But Dickie’s seeming obliviousness to his fellow Italian Americans’ disrespect for Harold doesn’t bode well for their working relationship. Particularly in the wake of rioting over the deadly police assault of an innocent Black taxi driver, and the rise of political consciousness fueled by the Black Power movement.

With Tony’s mobster father, Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), in prison for a stretch of the kid’s early adolescence, family friend and business associate Dickie becomes the model he aims to emulate. Tony gets into trouble at school for running his own small-time betting syndicate, and he and his buddies steal a Mr. Softee truck to give free ice cream to the local kids. One scene in which Tony talks to the school counselor provides wry foreshadowing of the adult mobster’s sessions with Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi, one of the key motifs of The Sopranos.

But the dominant storyline focuses on Dickie’s gnawing conflicts when his hot-tempered father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), returns from Naples by boat with his young bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), the former Miss Provolone 1967. When Dick starts smacking around his new wife the same way he did Dickie’s mother, Dickie reacts with violent impetuosity in one of the film’s most startling scenes. This reconfigures the Moltisanti family in ways that don’t turn out for the best.

The script weaves in the racial tensions of the time, first with the explosive illustration of the Newark riots, which become a convenient way for Dickie to redirect culpability for a major crime, and later with Johnny’s disgust at emerging from prison to find that Black residents have moved into the neighborhood. As the central figure in this thread, Odom is, as always, a commanding presence, but Harold’s story remains of secondary interest to Chase and Konner, even when he steps on Dickie’s toes personally as well as professionally.

As a character, Dickie in many ways mirrors the older Tony from The Sopranos — torn between the responsibilities of organized crime and family, morally elastic enough to reconcile years of infidelity, and reliant on a confidant to air his self-doubts, albeit very selectively in how much truth he chooses to share. His Dr. Melfi is a savvy observer with a Zen detachment, whose identity won’t be spoiled here.

As much as the plot centers on Dickie and, to a lesser extent, Harold, and the action is driven by the magnetic actors playing them, The Many Saints of Newark is also a mosaic of vignettes depicting family life and the small circle of trusted associates who would go on to become Tony’s core crew.

Paulie (Billy Magnussen), Silvio (John Magaro) and Big Pussy (Samson Moeakiola) can’t quite escape the feeling of playing sketch-comedy versions of their iconic characters. Close attention to makeup, hair, speech and mannerisms helps them nail the resemblances, though sometimes to a distracting degree that takes you out of the story (Silvio’s flapping toupee is a hoot).

Vera Farmiga, while not given enough to do, is subtler about suggesting the encroaching sourness and instability that would make Nancy Marchand a monster matriarch for the ages as Tony’s manipulative mother, Livia, on the series. Corey Stoll becomes progressively more crotchety as Johnny’s resentful older brother, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, particularly after a fall on the steps on the way out of a funeral service gives him lower back pain to snarl about. Mattea Conforti and Alexandra Intrator have a couple of amusing moments as Tony’s entitled sister Janice at different ages, recalling Aida Turturro’s hilarious troublemaker on the series.

But although school counselors and wiseguys alike point out Tony’s potential leadership qualities, he remains a bystander in his own origin story. Even if both Michael Gandolfini and Ludwig do fine within the limited scope of their roles, they are more like amoebas than fully fleshed-out characters. Chase wants to have it both ways, delivering a treat for diehard fans as well as a stand-alone movie not dependent on detailed knowledge of the series. As a result, the film expands on the Sopranos foundations but not the series’ perspective.

The late-’60s and early-’70s production and costume design, by Bob Shaw and Amy Westcott, respectively, are rooted firmly in an evocative sense of time and place, enhanced by a soundtrack of pinpoint needle drops. But The Many Saints of Newark is more of a diverting footnote than an invaluable extension of the show’s colossal legacy. It’s telling that one of the movie’s most electrifying moments is when the churning synth bassline of “Woke Up This Morning” blasts out over the end credits.

Full credits

Distributor: Warner Bros./HBO Max
Production companies: New Line Cinema, HBO, Chase Films
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Michela De Rossi, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Samson Moeakiola, William Ludwig, Mattea Conforti, Alexandra Intrator
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriters: David Chase, Lawrence Konner
Based on characters created by Chase
Producers: David Chase, Lawrence Konner, Nicole Lambert
Executive producers: Michael Disco, Marcus Viscidi, Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Bob Shaw
Costume designer: Amy Westcott
Editors: Christopher Tellefsen
Casting: Douglas Aibel

Rated R, 2 hours