The Many Saints of Newark are bullied by Ray Liotta and his made men.
The Many Saints of Newark, now streaming, really looks like a movie. Decades go by as evil men in sharkskin suits and cars with shark fins drive through a burning city. It’s widescreen American history, and it’s utterly cinematic. That’s worth noting because Many Saints is a prequel to a TV show: The Sopranos.
The now legendary HBO mob saga was the forerunner and patron saint of the prestige television era and, as is well known, ushered in an era of television with production values and images that rivaled those of the big screen. But while The Sopranos often looked like a movie, this belated prequel deserves its place on the big screen with some epic scenes.
So maybe it’s ironic that The Many Saints of Newark not only premieres in theaters on October 1st, but can also be seen at home on the HBO Max streaming service. It’s the newest major Warner Bros title to be streamed on HBO Max, and , with and still to come. But even if you watch it from the comfort of your sofa, you can be sure that Many Saints is much more than an extra-long Sopranos episode.
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The TV show ran for six seasons from 1999 to 2007, following family man Tony Soprano as he struggled to reconcile a good father (but a terrible husband) with a mafia boss in today’s dwindling mafia. Through dialogue hints and the occasional tempting flashback, the show was sketched into the backstory of Tony’s incestuous, confused family tree: not just Sopranos, but also DiMeos, Blundettos, Moltisantis and more.
The Many Saints of Newark is a full-color, full-blooded reveal of this story as a teenage Anthony Soprano grows up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps the movie’s biggest selling point is that young Tony is played by Michael Gandolfini, the real son of Sopranos star James Gandolfini, who died in 2013. It is goosebumps casting, as the young actor embodies the performance of his father: Tony Soprano’s grin, his voice, his trembling, frustrated sensitivity that gushes in violence. It’s something to watch that stirs up the film’s theme of fathers and sons and generations tied up in circles of emotions. Past sights present.
For Michael Gandolfini in The Many Saints of Newark, everything runs in the family.
But that’s not Tony’s story: he’s an observer realizing the truth behind those dark-clad uncles who meet in the back rooms of the many funerals he attends. Among the characters Sopranos fans will recognize, the real main character is someone you’ve never seen on the TV show: Dickie Moltisanti, a smoldering male leader who acts as a reluctant mentor to young Tony. Troubled Dickie is played with full screen intensity by Alessandro Nivola, an indie star (and Nicolas Cage’s next brother in Face / Off). His intense and seductive performance lets hints of a young Christopher Walken flow both in his accent and in his ability to be soulful brutality.
The other big new face is Leslie Odom Jr. as Harold MacBrayer, a steely black-footed soldier who turns a political awakening into criminal ambition. His story is compelling, and it would be great if more of that story actually got to the big screen. Odom’s simmering character has a powerful and elaborate beginning that fizzles out as the rest of the film’s multiple strands are overtaken. The same applies to Michela De Rossi’s trophy wife from the old country, an initially interesting figure whose interaction with Odom becomes a narrative invention.
Sopranos fans will also enjoy spotting the supporting cast, including Vera Farmigia as the brittle and sharp-tongued Livia, Tony’s vicious and haunted mother. It’s fun to see these younger versions of characters we know, even though Billy Magnussen’s Fake Nose as Paulie and John Magaro’s Heist as Silvio get dangerously close to pastiche. To be fair, they don’t have much to do as the overcrowded cast members can’t spend as much time with them as a TV show could. An important Sopranos character appears just long enough for you to get upset before it disappears after just one scene.
The Many Saints of Newark expands the scope of the mob film to examine racial tensions that persist to this day, despite Leslie Odom Jr.’s character seeking a solution.
But Many Saints is more than a nostalgia trip of novelty, even in the hands of the people best known for television. It was co-written by the original Sopranos series creator David Chase and directed by established television director Alan Taylor (whose big screen efforts include Thor: The Dark World and, and the less that is said about it, the better). The Many Saints of Newark actually looks like a movie – and that movie is Goodfellas. Smart people from the neighborhood in razor-sharp suits quarrel with their beehive-like wives and screw petty resentments into murderous revenge campaigns, all accompanied by the sounds of pop bops. If you’ve never seen The Sopranos before, Many Saints might look like a collection of deleted scenes from Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic. There’s even Ray Liotta in there.
This is not a complaint. Martin Scorsese’s groundbreaking Mafia flick is a popular classic for a reason. Goodfellas is a vicarious pleasure, rich in seductive details: the clothes, the music, the language, the thrill of violence. There’s a moment on the very first episode of The Sopranos where Tony Soprano says, “Lately I’ve felt like I’ve reached the end. The best is over.” Goodfellas recalls those best days, the days when Frank and Dino were walking around with wise men, the days before the RICO statutes defused organized crime, the days when stand-up boys dressed in suits rather than tracksuits to face someone smash a continuation of this rich epoch detail. Anyone who’s seen Goodfellas a thousand times will likely gobble this up.
However, Many Saints expands the scope of a mob film. The screen is also filled with a dazzling recreation of New Jersey’s insurrection against racial violence in the Long Hot Summer of 1967 also tells a fuller story of this convulsive refusal to learn from the past, a terrifying cycle of anger and self-loathing in homes and within the nation. If you’re wondering why a 2021 Sopranos prequel is relevant, look no further than the scene where white cops brutally rape a black man and sparked a wave of protests. The film shows troops sweeping the streets, explicitly a parallel to the raging Vietnam War back then and implicitly to the violence of today.
But while visually cinematic and part of a rich tradition of cinema, The Many Saints of Newark is inevitably part of a larger story. A feature film is by definition an independent story that is packed into a few hours. Except for these days, that’s not so, thanks to your franchises and your Marvel Cinematic Universes and your Dune Part Ones all setting up sequels to fill streaming services forever. Many Saints is far from a frothy franchise listing, but it does go beyond the confines of its two-hour run. And not just because of its connections with the TV show we know – although it’s on the order of a movie, Many Saints stubbornly rejects the neatness of the beginning, middle, and end of a film. Anyone who remembers the infamous abrupt climax of The Sopranos can guess just how much resolution Many Saints is ready to offer – or at least work to make it thematic resonance rather than something as blatant as an ending.
This deliberate questioning of the concept of the endings makes this Sopranos film look like a pilot in a new series. On the plus side, I would 100% watch this show. On the other hand, once the superficial joys of clothing, music, and Silvio’s wig have faded, The Many Saints of Newark leaves as many questions as joys.
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