The Sopranos returns! One of the most highly regarded HBO series ever made, backboned by pure quality, an impeccable reputation and plenty of diehard fans, fourteen years have passed since its controversial finale. But are you still feeling underwhelmed by the silent cut to black? Well, you’ll be delighted to know it’s long awaited prequel is coming, or has already been released, to the silver screen. Is it any where near the quality of its inspiration? Or will it quickly be swept under the carpet with the rest of the failed spin offs?
The Many Saints of Newark heads back in time to 1967 America, a place fuelled by race riots, racketeering and Vietnam conscription – it also happens to be the hunting ground of a young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini), not yet a struggling mob boss, but a confused, disillusioned teenager, still vying to get on the football team. But surrounded by his mafia family, including temperamental Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), desperately insecure Junior (Cory Still) and narcissistic matriarch Livia (Vera Farmiga), negative influences begin to set in.
Now, The Sopranos is a classic – perhaps one of the greatest TV series ever. And, at its core, there was something of a tragic flavour to its essence. In the very first episode, Tony complains of an empty, unprincipled, crumbling America going to the pits. He complains of a life that just isn’t the same without the proud loyalty and respect that made his family so dignified. You imagine, as a man who feels so emotional and broken, completely contrasting his idea of the perfect man, that he believes the American Dream has let him down, and he can’t begin to understand why.
Gary Cooper. Now there was an American. The strong, silent type.Tony Soprano
By the end of Series 6, Tony sits in a diner, awaiting his fate, having become the very epitome of that America that he couldn’t comprehend at the start. No one – and I mean no one – gets what they wanted in that show. It’s a tragedy, because there are characters there who wanted to do good, who wanted to change, who wanted to escape – and yet, everyone ends up either dead, doomed and irrecoverably corrupted.
The Sopranos crafts its own bleakness meticulously, and at times it’s like watching a carpenter slowly sand and polish off the final touches to a beautiful, oak table: a master truly perfecting their art. The show’s genius can be pinpointed at the fact it acts under the guise of a violent, mafia drama, when really it’s a profound, existential, family-orientated and frequently pain-inducing drama. So, the question must be, does The Many Saints of Newark manage to capture those same notes of sorrow?
On this front, it’s a resounding yes. If there’s anything the film does right, it’s the agony that slowly seeps through the wounds as the actions progresses. Part of that is caused by David Chase’s superb writing, who’s incredibly well versed understanding of his characters is as riveting as it is disquieting to watch. Originally planning to write The Sopranos as movie itself, the man clearly knows how to compose a hundred and twenty page script, and despite some problems in the works (some of which I’ll come on to soon), The Many Saints is an opportunity for him to strike us again with that same dark ingenuity that he opted not to send to cinemas back in 1999, but our television screens instead.
His crowning achievement has to be the beautifully crafted character arc of Dickie Moltisanti. Opting to place the limelight on such an unknown enigma was a stroke a genius. Dickie was a character who, despite never appearing in the original series, always seemed to be a surreptitious, daunting presence in the shadows, his suspiciously discordant backstory constantly tormenting Christopher. Not only did that give Chase a lot of leeway to freely explore his history, but also create a compelling concept where a turbulent, flawed, complex antihero, very similar to that of adult Tony, can spearhead the story.
He’s played superbly by the relatively unknown Alessandro Nivola, who gives off eerily strong Richie Aprile vibes, and is utterly astounding. There’s a moment where he sits drenched on a beach, and you can only lean back and just appreciate… brilliance. It’s reminiscent of fellow cast member Ray Liotta’s break out role in Goodfellas, and if this is anything to go by, Nivola will hopefully be getting a lot more absorbing work.
The plotting, or more particularly the pacing, is another interesting aspect of the screenplay. The Many Saints is a bubbling slow burn, with an extended, loosely open first act to establish the burning world we’re delving into. This is, no doubt, the weakest part of the film. Perhaps it’s necessary to create a more rewarding experience later in the film, but, overall, its opening, set even earlier in time, drags without a solid sense of direction, diverting from different storyline to different storyline seemingly without purpose. Black gangster Harold McBrayer’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) story feels particularly prevalent today, but it’s a plot line that sprawls unnecessarily, and you’re left wondering why it was even included. Even some its stand out moments feel sorely anticlimactic, and what should hit you with a blow instead dribbles, uninspired.
Then we cut to teenage Tony, and it’s almost like you can immediately sense the sudden injection in quality. Nivola is the standout performance, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement that Michael Gandolfini gives the film it’s lifeblood. His striking resemblance to his father who, for you laymen, originally played Tony, alongside the very same ticks and habits that made Gandolfini Sr. such a fantastically understated actor, makes this an incredibly distinctive and gratifying rendition. Dickie’s role, meanwhile, only continues to grow and improve throughout, simultaneous sympathy and horror perfectly intertwining into an insatiable performance that just grips you to the screen. Whether it be the well crafted, perfectly disciplined nature of the few violence moments, or the quiet, heartrending scenes of men made evil, Dickie and Tony is the rocky partnership that holds this whole film together.
The ending is brilliant, not only in it’s seductive use of Alabama 3’s still astounding ‘Woke Up This Morning’, but also in the superb imagery and – yes, you guessed it – tragedy. I’ve heard some people complain that Many Saints is not a worthy origin story of Tony as it has been billed, but in the those final, closing scenes, we get a glimpse into the dark labyrinth that is The Sopranos, and it’s not only incredibly satisfying, but an invitation to advance that it’s too irresistible to refuse.
The acting all round is outstanding, mainly because the casting is perfection. Cory Still, a really underrated actor, as Junior and Vera Farmiga as Livia really lead the way within the secondary character bound, with perfect imitations of iconic characters – always a daunting feat. A scene-chewingly amusing Silvio (John Magaro), who receives a smattering screen time alongside Paulie and Pussie, is impossible to forget, and even a – slight spoiler here – voice over from Michael Imperioli as Christopher from beyond the grave was, despite being a little naff, a surge of unflinching nostalgia.
The Many Saints of Newark is, quite frankly, not only an amazing piece of fan service, but a film that can stand on it’s own two feet. Of course, many will skip this one, but it’s undeniably a superb film, and I would strongly recommend those looking for a gateway to The Sopranos to perhaps check it out if you don’t mind a spoiler or two. If you’re a concerned, original watcher, frightened Many Saints may spoil some of your favourite television moments, fret not. When it comes to a film like this, you have to ask the question whether it enriches, or takes away, from the original. And there’s no doubt in my mind that, hopefully, this little flick will not only fulfil the devotees, but also introduce a whole new audience to The Sopranos. Truly, The Many Saints of Newark is most definitely an prologue befitting of the series.
The Many Saints of Newark – 8 out of 10