The MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK
Directed by Alan Taylor
A word to the wise guys: if you haven’t seen all of The Sopranos yet, then don’t watch this. Even though it’s a prequel, within the opening 2 or 3 minutes The Many Saints of Newark gives away a huge plot point seven years in the making. Luckily, I have seen the whole show several times – it’s maybe my all-time favourite. The actors, the writing, the characterisation: now decades after airing, it’s still unrivalled. So, to say I was excited about seeing a prequel at the cinema is an understatement. Penned by Sopranos showrunner David Chase and occasional writer Lawrence Konner, The Many Saints of Newark shows long term fans things they’ve only heard about: Jersey in the 60s and 70s.
Allegedly the best years of the mob, it’s a time of unrest, social change and when series regular Christopher’s dad Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola) is coming into his own. Those expecting a coming of age centred around Tony may be disappointed. It’s definitely still a part of it, especially in the second half, but this film is about the man he grew up idolising for most of the running time. A man he will grow up to emulate. Dickie’s an ambitious soldier with plenty of charm, a short fuse and lots of catholic guilt. When he’s not smitten by his dad’s (Liotta) new partner Giuseppina (De Rossi), he’s working a numbers racket i.e., illegal gambling. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, his lackey Harold (Odom jnr.) decides he’s sick of doing his handy work but not having all the fancy cars to show for. And so, he begins to move in on his former boss’ territory. It’s a fight for Newark that stays true to the series’ themes of exploitation, with the parasitical mob being able to sneak under the radar as the cops concentrate on the riots.
Sometimes big-screen adaptations struggle to take advantage of the format and look like extended episodes. That’s not what happens here – Many Saints has a cinematic feel from the start, with several big set pieces involving shootouts, riots and a slightly heavy-handed one involving a tank. The 60s/70s aesthetic is excellent, with the attention to detail fans will have come to expect and a rich, varied soundtrack. This looks and sounds even better than its source material, and the world of Newark, with its dimly lit, smoky, cigar-tinged bars, is really immersive. It’s also populated by many of your favourite characters: Silvio, Johnny, Pussy, Paulie, Livia, Janice and, of course, Uncle Junior. A few of these parts are little more than glorified cameos – shameless bits of fan service – but they work. The Sopranos was always anti-arc, with characters seeing ways out but never taking them. As such, it’s rewarding to watch a younger version of the main gang and seeing how little they’ve changed.
On that point, the performances are phenomenal too. Vera Farmiga, as the borderline Livia, is dream casting – consistent with the film and series’ Oedipal themes, it’s funny to see her look just like Carmella. She does the venom and paranoia, but then there’s also a softness there – maybe the last of it, as she wrestles the good memories with a son who she can’t love. John Magaro fully embodies Silvio, down to the mannerisms and even the same walk. Though the stand out is arguably Jon Bernthal as Junior – the voice, the expressions, and the movements are perfect. He’s every bit the embittered, petty weasel we can’t help but love. Fans will also love some of the revelations and easter eggs peppered throughout – at least one which settles an ongoing debate. And then there’s Michael Gandolfini: one of two actors to take on the part of Tony. He’s James Gandolfini’s son, and aside from looking so similar, he plays the part with the same mix of endearing vulnerability and moments of rage. Suffice to say, it was not a windy day when the apple fell from that tree. With no warmth at home and only mobsters to look up to, there’s a tragedy about seeing him embark on a path that will take him from a rebellious but mostly harmless teenager to a mafioso. Sure, as Junior says here (and will say many times over the years), he never had the makings of a varsity athlete. But there’s definitely the potential for something outside that thing for theirs.
If there’s a central problem with the movie, it’s that there’s such a vast world to explore and so little time to do it. At just north of two hours, The Many Saints of Newark isn’t short. Though because there’s probably a miniseries worth of content squished into it, it still feels rushed. Some scenes feel like information dumps, and a moment that should be sad for one character feels more like a plot device for another. And while I enjoyed the conflict between the good man that Dickie wants to be, or at least be seen as, and the corrupt thug he actually is, emotionally, it often failed to land. Still, the ending is a shiver up the spine moment and points at the potential for other films to bridge the gap. I’d definitely watch them, and it’d be fun to see young Anthony continue down this road. The Jacket, Feech La Manna’s card game, his friendship with Hesh. We’ve met the surrogate father; now let’s see him follow in his footsteps. Like Tony himself, I hope these sequels get made.