The Many Saints of Newark is No Sopranos
The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to HBO’s The Sopranos. It takes place during the seventies and eighties. We see some of the Sopranos characters in younger versions but there are many new characters, making this a tangential tale at best. It lacks the flavour, nuance, and complexity of the original TV series.
The Many Saints of Newark, Alan Taylor‘s prequel to HBO’s The Sopranos, is written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. Despite being co-written by Chase (the showrunner for the original HBO series), the prequel does not feel like a true prequel, an extended Sopranos episode, a tribute, or anything else. What the film feels like is an attempt to connect to the original show that is half-hearted and arrives much too late.
The Sopranos spent much screen time delving deep into the lore of the tri-state mafia world but what really captivated audiences was its ability to delve even deeper into the psyches of its characters, the fickle and nuanced modern psychology it brought to their characterizations, the way life and all its ambiguities and ironies were toyed with in a most engaging way. And let’s not forget all those surreal dream sequences and the show’s incredibly wry sense of irony and humour.
The prequel has none of these things. What it does have is a series of actors trying their best to pass off imitations of what the show’s characters might have acted and sounded like a generation prior. Even when the actors are capable (for example, Vera Farmiga playing the younger Livia Soprano, Tony’s mom) or downright weird (Michael Gandolfini – James Gandolfini’s son – playing a teenage version of Tony), the performances don’t connect or compel, instead connecting a series of dots that aren’t really the dots hardcore Sopranos fans care to have connected.
Set during the sixties and the seventies, the story centres around the character of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) whom Sopranos fans might remember as the father of Christopher Moltisanti from the TV series, talked about but never seen because Dickie died shortly after Christopher was born. Characters from the TV series like the aforementioned Liva, Sylvio, and Junior show up but these characterizations aren’t really fleshed out. Instead, the story puts its ballast into Dickie Moltisanti and his troubled relationship with his “goomah” (the show’s oft used term for mistress) and the racial tensions which are embodied in Dickie’s feud with a previous African-American employee named Harolod McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) who tries to carve out territory for himself and his black friends.
Sopranos fans might further remember the episode where Tony tells Christopher that the person who killed his father is now a retired cop and instructs Christopher to kill him. Christopher gladly complies and when the retired cop claims he isn’t the assassin, Christopher kills him anyway, saying that it doesn’t matter – all that matters is that Tony has ordered Christopher to carry out the act. We viewers never did receive any conclusive information as to whether the retired cop was telling the truth or not, and this is what made the show excellent – its ambiguity and twists of characterization and action. The film neither adopts this engaging level of ambiguity nor addresses the question of whether the same cop was indeed Dickie’s assassin. Instead, it follows its melodramatic plot points with an emotional boredom that is as washed out as its colour palette.
There are good performances to be found in The Many Saints of Newark, chief among them Alessandro Nivola – it’s an unusual role for him and perhaps the strongest performance I’ve seen from him. He’s magnetic, projecting the kind of winning charm that masks sociopathic insecurities and aggressive tendencies – this, along with various other Sopranos themes like depression and medication, childhood trauma, parental dysfunction, and the longings of the id are touched on but it’s a very facile touching. Whereas the show actually had an id to draw upon, murky and fathomless, the show has a fleeting definition of what the id is but nothing more. Ray Liotta plays brothers in the prequel. As the father of Dickie Moltisanti, Liotta isn’t particularly engaging but as his father’s brother (and therefore, Dickie’s searing uncle, stuck in prison for having killed a made guy in his own crew), Liotta’s mesmerizing. The latter performance, like his excellent turn in Marriage Story, remind you of how much promise Liotta once had and how electric he can be, given the right circumstances.
The movie posits that it’s Dickie Moltisanti who made Tony Soprano go down the road we find him on in the show. The show instead posited that there was no one reason anyone really does what they do, except that we all lie to ourselves and others more than we can bear to admit. We see Tony both as a boy and a teenager. Neither are very compelling characters or performances. Picking James Gandolfini’s son to play the teen Tony has not paid off because the youth neither resembles his father nor does he possess his father’s edge, that palpable, struggling energy James Gandolfini pushed to the point to which he hated himself even as the series made him a household hit. It’s too much of a responsibility for young Michael Gandolfini to bear, especially since he’s almost exactly the same age as the show. It’s like expecting Sean Lennon to perform like his father, John. The legacy of The Sopranos, ushering in the modern age of television, is on the Mount Rushmore of TV. Unfortunately, the prequel does nothing to add to this.