As a fan of the original Sopranos TV show, which ran on HBO from 1999 to 2007, I was eagerly awaiting The Many Saints of Newark, series creator David Chase‘s prequel to the long-running series. Prequels are odd types of beasts, having to retro-fit a plot to perfectly match what came before. And make it not stink. Think Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Thankfully, this Soprano throwback did not disappoint.
The film opens with the voice of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) as the camera pans through a graveyard filled with tomestones of names you may or may not recognize. It then goes back in time to the 60’s, where we meet Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Christopher’s father and Tony’s soon-to-be mentor.
Dickie and Tony’s father, Johnny (a great Jon Bernthal, who I wish had more to do in the film), have just tried to pull off their latest scam, and when Johnny gets nabbed and locked up, Dickie becomes a surrogate father to young Tony (a wide-eyed William Ludwig). From there we meet a slew of characters, both new – Dickie’s father ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, in a perfectly fitting role) and Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), an old high school buddy of Dickie’s – and old – younger versions of Silvio (John Margaro), Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll) and Tony’s mind-f of a mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga).
It’s a lot of characters to get introduced to (or re-introduced to) in a short amount of time, and I was trying to wrap my head around who was who, trying to connect nicknames and last names to characters on a show that I hadn’t watched in years. But once those connections were made, everything started to click.
The film is billed as ‘the making of Tony Soprano,’ and yeah, you could say that. But it’s really Dickie’s story. How he’s trying to manage life as the boss, his flings and failures. He was basically Tony before there was a Tony. Nivola is terrific. Dickie is a slicker version of the Tony Soprano we all know. He dresses better and he’s more affable. It’s hard not to see why young Tony looks up to him. He’s also got that temper where he’s smiling and joking with you one minute and on a dime, turns into menacing anger.
The film is also about race. Part of the story deals with the Newark riots of 1967, which started when police arrested and beat a young black taxi driver. Those events fuels Leslie Odom Jr.s character to break away from Dickie and go off on his own, be his own man. Which, as you can imagine, doesn’t make Dickie too happy. It’s fun to watch Odom Jr. go from henchmen, willing to do most whatever it takes to succeed, to something… else bigger and badder. His character is observant of everything and that is observance helps (or leads to?) his ambition later on in the film.
The question that most everyone but we’ll be asking though is about Michael Gandolfini, James Gandolfini‘s son who landed the role of teenage Tony. When we first meet him, he’s a typical teenager. Well, as typical as you can be when your family is full of mobsters. Even though the story doesn’t focus on Tony, it does sprinkle the seeds into how he became “The Tony Soprano” and it’s actually pretty sad. There’s a point in the film where he’s almost out, he’s almost pushed out of that life and as a viewer, you can almost see that fork in the road, those options of a better, more upstanding life. But, we all know what happens. Gandolfini is fine and he does what he can with the role and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with his Tony as the story progresses.