Before iconic mobster drama The Sopranos altered the landscape of television forever, the writer David Chase, whilst waiting for the show to be picked up, actually considered developing the pilot into a feature to pursue his dream of becoming a film director. Thankfully, HBO eventually greenlit the series and the rest is history. Over twenty years later, the show creator has revisited the New Jersey mob for prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark. Directed by Alan Taylor, who worked regularly on the series, the plot follows gangster Dickie Moltisanti, a soldier of ‘Johnny Boy’ Soprano (Jon Bernthal) within the DiMeo crime family. Set against the backdrop of the 1967 race riots, tensions are running high between Dickie and his former street enforcer Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), leading to a brutal feud that would divide the communities in the city.
There’s a lot packed into this story, but the telling remains slick despite being stuffed full of detail and subtext. The rise and fall of the troubled protagonist is the central thread as Dickie spins the plates of his complicated relationship with his father, a forbidden romance with his latest goomah, and his political power struggle with a friend turned foe. Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner expertly weave the freshly conceived narrative in with the beginnings of the brilliant characters that admirers of the programme will be familiar with.
It’s a remarkable feat of writing to provide rewarding fan service as well as crafting a compelling new yarn that would easily work as a standalone within the genre. Somehow, this journey back in time to the 60s and 70s enhances and evolves the source material without tarnishing its sacrosanct legacy, and Taylor directs with a richness and depth that feels both nostalgic and innovative.
With a myriad of themes being explored in the background, planting the seeds for what was to come in the future, Alessandro Nivola provides a captivating focal point in the present day of the plot. Like every great gangster lead, he is deeply flawed but effortlessly cool and charming, and it’s incredible to see how his choices forge the path for young Tony, and of course his son Christopher whose life would be forever influenced by the absence of his father. Bringing never-seen-before characters into play, Nivola is joined by wiseguy royalty Ray Liotta, who is reliably excellent as the typically cruel but admittedly charismatic ‘Hollywood Dick’, and Leslie Odom Jr, whose powerful subplot occasionally shifts the focus from the Italian perspective to the all-too-topical perils of the African American people of that particular era.
A lot of the attention in the build-up to this piece has been around the portrayal of the young Tony Soprano, and the casting of Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini who played the legendary boss in the series. It’s important to know going into the movie that his story is yet to come, and that this origin tale is very much a supporting strand. That being said, Gandolfini is quietly amazing in the role. Aside from the obvious physical likeness, his mannerisms, the way he carries himself, and his delivery make this an absolute masterstroke of casting. Scenes with his mother Livia, a chillingly good Vera Farmiga, are particularly well done, hinting at the forthcoming Oedipal complexities of his psyche.
There are almost too many notable performances to mention, and though some are a little caricature-esque in their approach, Taylor manages the tone to provide welcomed comic relief from the horrific darker elements involving discrimination and domestic abuse. Corey Stoll deserves a mention for his superb take on Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano Jr.; he captures the pettiness of Tony’s cowardly Uncle with aplomb, adding another dimension to an arguably underrated character from the series.
Screenwriter David Chase proves to be a master string-puller on the big screen as well as the small, and with an epic new vision stylishly brought to fruition by director Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark serves as a hugely satisfying side dish to the veritable feast that is The Sopranos.