Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark is mafioso good
Available to rent and buy Dec. 6, The Many Saints of Newark is as much a tribute to Goodfellas as it is to Tony Soprano's youthful backstory.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
The Many Saints of Newark really looks like a movie. Decades flow past as bad men in sharkskin suits and shark-finned cars cruise a burning city. It's American history in wide screen, and it's utterly cinematic. That's worth mentioning because Many Saints is also a prequel to a TV show: The Sopranos.
HBO's now legendary mob saga was the precursor to and patron saint of the prestige television era, famously ushering in an era of TV with production values and visuals that rivaled those of the big screen. But even though The Sopranos often looked like a movie, this belated prequel earns its place on the bigger screen with some epic scenes.
So maybe it's ironic that as well as premiering in theaters, The Many Saints of Newark was also one of the big Warner Bros movies which streamed on the small screen on HBO Max, following Tenet, Godzilla vs Kong and The Suicide Squad, with Dune a big hit and The Matrix 4 still to come. It's also available to rent and buy Dec. 6 and on DVD and Blu-ray Dec. 13.
But even if you do watch from the comfort of your sofa, rest assured Many Saints is much more than an extra-long Sopranos episode.
Running for six seasons from 1999 to 2007, the TV show followed family man Tony Soprano struggling to balance being a good father (but terrible husband) with being a mob boss in the waning, present-day Mafia. Through dialogue hints and the occasional tantalizing flashback, the show sketched in the backstory of Tony's incestuously tangled family tree: not just Sopranos, but DiMeos, Blundettos, Moltisantis and more.
The Many Saints of Newark is a full-color, full-blooded reveal of that history as a youthful Anthony Soprano comes of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps the biggest selling point of the film is that young Tony is played by Michael Gandolfini, real-life son of Sopranos star James Gandolfini, who died in 2013. It's spine-tingling casting as the young actor embodies his father's performance: Tony Soprano's grin, his voice, his quaveringly frustrated sensitivity that bubbles over into violence. It's something to behold, and gives a frisson to the film's theme of fathers and sons and generations tied into cycles of emotion. Past haunts present.
But this isn't Tony's story: He's an observer, becoming aware of the truth behind those dark-suited uncles who meet in the backrooms of the many funerals he finds himself attending. Among the characters Sopranos fans will recognize, the real main character is someone never seen in the TV show: Dickie Moltisanti, a smoldering leader of men who acts as a reluctant mentor for young Tony. Troubled Dickie is played with screen-filling intensity by Alessandro Nivola, indie stalwart (and Nicolas Cage's nebbish brother in Face/Off). His intense and seductive performance channels hints of a young Christopher Walken in both his accent and capacity for soulful brutality.
The other major new face is Leslie Odom Jr. as Harold MacBrayer, a steely Black foot soldier who channels a political awakening into criminal ambition. His is a compelling story, and it would be great if more of that story actually made it to the screen. Odom's simmering character has a powerful and fleshed-out beginning that peters out as the rest of the film's multiple strands overtake. The same is true for Michela De Rossi's old-country trophy wife, an initially interesting character whose interaction with Odom ends up as a narrative contrivance.
Sopranos fans will also enjoy recognizing the supporting cast, including Vera Farmigia as the brittle and sharp-tongued Livia, Tony's spiteful and persecuted mother. It's fun watching these younger versions of characters we know, although Billy Magnussen's fake nose as Paulie and John Magaro's mugging as Silvio skirt dangerously close to pastiche. In fairness, they don't get much to do as the crowded cast can't spend as much time with them as a TV show could. One major Sopranos character appears just long enough for you to get excited before disappearing after just one scene.
But Many Saints is more than a novelty nostalgia trip, even in the hands of people best known for television. It's co-written by original Sopranos series creator David Chase and helmed by established TV director Alan Taylor (whose big-screen efforts include Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisys, and the less said about that the better). The Many Saints of Newark does indeed look like a movie -- and that movie is Goodfellas. Neighborhood wiseguys in pin-sharp suits bicker with their beehived wives and ratchet up petty grievances into murderous vendettas, all set to the sound of period pop bops. If you've never seen The Sopranos, Many Saints may well look like a collection of deleted scenes from Martin Scorsese's 1990 classic. It's even got Ray Liotta in it.
This isn't a complaint. Martin Scorsese's seminal mafia flick is a much-loved classic for a reason. Goodfellas is a vicarious pleasure, rich with seductive detail: the clothes, the music, the language, the thrill of violence. There's a moment in the very first episode of The Sopranos where Tony Soprano says, "Lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over." Goodfellas harks back to those best days, the days when Frank and Dino palled around with wiseguys, the days before RICO statutes defanged organized crime, the days when standup guys put on a suit and not a tracksuit to smash someone's face in. Many Saints is a continuation of that rich period detail. Anyone who's seen Goodfellas a thousand times will probably lap this up.
Many Saints broadens the scope of a mob movie, however. The screen is also filled with a blazing re-creation of New Jersey's riotous uprising against racist violence in the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The Many Saints of Newark treads similar ground as The Sopranos in its intimate portraits of toxic families poisoning future generations, but also tells a wider of story of this convulsive refusal to learn from the past, a chilling cycle of anger and self-loathing in homes and in the nation. If you're wondering why a Sopranos prequel is relevant in 2021, look no further than the scene in which white cops brutalize a Black man and spark a wave of protest. The film shows troops sweeping the streets, explicitly drawing a parallel with the Vietnam War raging at the time, and implicitly with the violence of today.
But while it's visually cinematic, and belongs to a rich tradition of cinema, The Many Saints of Newark is inescapably part of a larger story. A feature film is by definition a standalone story wrapped up in a couple of hours. Except nowadays that isn't so, thanks to your franchises and your Marvel Cinematic Universes and your Dune Part Ones, all setting up sequels to fill streaming services forever more. Many Saints is far from a frothy franchise entry but it does extend beyond the boundaries of its two-hour run-time. And not just because of its links to the TV show we know -- while it's on the scale of a movie, Many Saints stubbornly refuses the neatness of a movie's beginning, middle and end. Anyone who remembers the infamously abrupt climax of The Sopranos can guess how much resolution Many Saints is prepared to offer -- or at least makes you work for it, offering thematic resonance rather than anything as crass as an ending.
This willful questioning of the very concept of endings makes this Sopranos film feel like a pilot episode of a new series. On the plus side, I would 100% watch that show. On the other hand, once the surface pleasures of the clothes, the music and Silvio's wig fade away, The Many Saints of Newark leaves as many questions as pleasures.
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