Maybe you’re like me and haven’t watched The Sopranos since it concluded its 6th season on HBO 14 years ago, or maybe, at the height of the pandemic, you already rebinged the entire series on HBO Max to prepare yourself for this prequel movie from creator David Chase.
Directed by Alan Taylor, who had worked on so many HBO shows and won an Emmy for directing The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark comes from a screenplay written by Chase and Lawrence Konner that attempts to tell a story set 30 years before The Sopranos series involving some of the same characters.
After an opening shot that pans across a graveyard filled with some of Tony Soprano’s victims — narrated by Michael Imperioli‘s Christopher Moltisanti, who was one of them — we’re transported back to the late ’60s where we meet Christopher’s father, Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, as played by Alessandro Nivola. Dickie’s father, known as “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), has just returned to Jersey from Italy where he found his second wife, the beautiful Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). Jon Bernthal plays Tony’s father, Johnny, who we meet just as he’s sent to jail for four years later, as well as Tony’s mother (Vera Farmiga) and sister Janice. As the MAFIA has control over most of Jersey, small-time criminal Harold (Leslie Odom Jr) is emboldened by the revolutions of the times to want to break out on his own, as internal conflicts within the Soprano and Moltisanti families that allows such actions.
The biggest misnomer for Many Saints is that it’s all about Tony Soprano and his life before becoming the crime boss we know and love. Although we meet Tony fairly early on, it’s a while before we get to see the criminal side of Tony, as played as a teenager by Michael Gandolfini, son of the late, great James Gandolfini, who won three Emmys for playing Tony Soprano. In fact, the movie spends much of its time on Nivola’s Dickie, who is pivotal in Tony’s journey into crime.
If there’s one actor who really deserves a great, juicy role like that one, it’s Nivola, who has been doing so much great, underappreciated work for decades. Odom also pulls off a great turn as a character not from the series but one who clearly will play a large part in Tony’s future. Although Ray Liotta doesn’t last long as Dickie’s father, the actor returns as Dickie’s imprisoned uncle, who becomes a mentor of sorts. De Rossi also goes through quite a transformation as a fiery Italian woman who has no desire to be a housewife, as she becomes Dickie’s mistress.
Surely the most entertaining aspect of Many Saints is seeing younger versions of our favorite Sopranos, whether it’s Janice or a note-perfect Junior, as portrayed by Corey Stoll, or the very amusing portrayals of Paulie “Walnuts” by Billy Magnussen or John Magaro’s Silvio. Despite the dark and often violent nature of the story in Many Saints, Chase still manages to instill the humor that Sopranos fans loved. Farmiga is the only member of the cast who gives an uncharacteristically over-the-top performance as Tony’s Type A mother.
In many ways, returning to this familiar territory allows Taylor to flourish as a director just like it allows Chase to write a script on par with anything he wrote for the series. (Oddly, he hasn’t written much that’s been produced since the end of The Sopranos — just the 2012 film, Not Fade Away.)
If there’s anything that really pushes the Scorsese factor for Many Saints, it’s the brilliant song choices, giving Many Saints one of the best soundtracks of the year. It will be little surprise to see Emmy-winning Music Supervisor Susan Jacobs credited for helping put that together.
As with the show, you never know when someone gets offed, so you shouldn’t get too comfortable with anyone, but after roughly two hours, the movie just stops, so suddenly in fact that it’s likely to be disappointing to those enjoying it. It very much feels like Chase just wanted to set up another movie (or series), thereby leaving some stories set up in Many Saints without a proper resolution.
On the other hand, if you haven’t already gone back for that Sopranos binge, there’s a lot to absorb in Many Saints that will make revisiting the show quite worthwhile. Regardless, it’s an entertaining return to familiar territory for Chase.
The Many Saints of Newark will be released in movie theaters nationwide and on HBO Max on Friday, October 1.
All pictures courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.