Tony Soprano is back on screen after nearly fifteen years. The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to the critically acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos, follows the wise guys that came before Tony. More than anything, this prequel gives insight into the men that influenced Tony to become the man he was. Dickie Moltisanti takes the lead as an extremely flawed protagonist in the period piece, mobster flick. Other central characters of The Sopranos appear throughout the film including Silvio Dante, Paulie Walnuts, and Junior Soprano. While the performances are stellar, and any fan of The Sopranos is sure to get a kick out of all the references and origin stories, The Many Saints of Newark leaves a lot to be desired as a standalone film.
The Many Saints of Newark is in theaters now and available to stream until October 31st on HBO Max.
Story – Gang Wars and Nostalgia
In 1960’s Newark, New Jersey, racial tensions escalate to just below boiling point. This culminates in the police beating a black man in the street, sparking the 1967 Newark race riot. As the city burns, we are introduced to the younger versions of the wise guy crew of the DiMeo crime family we first met in The Sopranos. The Sopranos creator and writer of The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase, relies heavily on the audience’s knowledge of the original series to fill in information for most of the characters. The main focus is placed on the story of Dickie Moltisanti, a character only mentioned by name in The Sopranos as Tony Soprano’s uncle and mentor.
Four years after the riots, Tony’s father is released from prison. Now a teenager, Tony starts to develop into the man we saw in The Sopranos with the inspiration from his uncle. While his backstory unfolds, a new gang is forming in Newark led by an African-American man who used to work for Dickie. Violence ensues as a gang war breaks out for control of Newark territory.
These two plot lines, the origin story of Tony Soprano with the influence of Dickie and the gang war exacerbated by racial tensions, often clash. It’s hard to get invested in either one. As someone familiar with The Sopranos, it was at least easy to fall into the almost silly wise guy banter of the mobsters, but this felt like a direct contradiction to the heavy plot of racial injustice and violence running parallel to the Tony origin story. It feels like this movie is trying to tell two stories, shouting over each other, and both fall short because of it. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the original series, I find it difficult to imagine this movie being meaningful at all.
Characters and Performances – Young Faces
The main draw of this film was the characters. Many would consider The Sopranos the best show ever made, and I don’t think it’s controversial to say it’s at least in the conversation for such a title. And James Gandolfini played one of the best characters in a TV series as mob boss Tony Soprano. It was special to see his son, Michael Gandolfini, play the younger version of the beloved character. He had a somewhat secondary role in The Many Saints of Newark, but his performance gave a new light to the character.
Michael Gandolfini was excellent at mimicking the mannerisms of his father’s character. Their likeness added a level of believability to the role that could have easily fallen flat. The movie might have been better served if it focused more on this character’s development.
Many of the the other characters from The Sopranos are brought back as well. Much of the movie is spent focusing specifically on the banter and subtle relationships between the well known characters without much actual development. It’s clear that the audience is expected to come to The Many Saints of Newark with a lot of knowledge from the original show.
While it is a lot of fun for fans of the series who have already developed a relationship with these characters, anyone watching this without all of The Sopranos‘ baggage is going to be underwhelmed. The only returning character that gets a decent bit of development is Junior Soprano, Tony’s uncle. His vindictive and jealous nature are on full display in this prequel and the decisions he makes have serious impacts on the series that is set decades later.
The character development may be a little undercooked, but the performances are delightful. It’s hard to imagine a better casting situation for these young wise guys. My favorite would have to be John Magaro as Silvio Dante, originally played by Steven Van Zandt. He was such a specific character in The Sopranos and John Magaro matched it perfectly. The attitudes and personalities off all the original cast were clearly studied meticulously and lovingly.
Editing and Pacing – Split Decision
While there are no technical issues with the editing of The Many Saints of Newark, I have to go back to the structural issues here. Cut to cut, frame by frame, the film is as professional and creative as any. However, the pacing felt off as the plot jumped between the two storylines going on side by side. This felt like two different movies that maybe should have been made separately. It is hard to focus on the meat of the plot when we keep switching between nostalgic origin story and something completely fresh.
The focus kept going back to young Tony Soprano, shifting away from the gang war that seemed much more important and engrossing. Tony does little more than get in the way of what could have been a more interesting standalone story. Continually pulling the attention back to teenage Tony broke the tension building on the other side. Without this distraction, their might have been a great mob movie in here.
Cinematography and Sound – Set the Tone
The deliberate nature of the cinematography and use of color and light made every scene its own unique piece. The ability to set a tone for each individual event was masterful. The low angles and dark shadows give insight into the power and darkness of the violent characters. But, in scenes when the family was the focus, it all shifted to bright colors and wide angles. The characters have two very different personalities depending on the situation. While they are mostly violent criminals and even murderers, they also have families that they love and provide for. The use of composition and color highlight these opposing attitudes.
The sound mixing in The Many Saints of Newark seemed somewhat off at times. I found myself straining to here the dialogue while the action and other background sound was loud and clear. The soundtrack, however, was filled with 60’s and 70’s contemporary music that did wonders to set the tone and atmosphere.