I remember when the first season of The Sopranos aired and a few people thought it was a poor man’s Goodfellas. The further and longer something goes on however, the public’s opinions slowly change, and when the show’s leading star passes away, even more people show up to shower said work with tear-soaked praise. The Sopranos is a classic TV show in my opinion but an overrated classic. Whilst changing the face of long-form television it also had some bad acting (Steven Van Zandt) dull moments (almost everything to do with Meadow and Anthony) contrived and hackneyed ideas (cheating, bigoted, spousal abusing gangsters) and other dodgy crap (post 9/11 Muslims and the Christopher Columbus episode). Because the show’s prequel The Many Saints Of Newark doesn’t have decades to mature and years of fanboying to give it an infallible facade, this film is disappointing to everyone in every way possible. Many Saints doesn’t work as a standalone crime drama because of its almost non-existent storyline and it doesn’t work as a satisfying origin story for any of the show’s characters unless you’re curious to see what Beanie Baby-esque, bad-acting versions of Silvio, Paulie, and Pussy look like.
Opening with the half-decent idea of the dead speaking from beyond their literal graves, the film begins with narration by deceased character Christopher Moltisanti (and because Moltisanti means “Many Saints” that’s, err… the reason for this film’s existence?). I really have no idea why this movie was ever made. On the poster it says “Who made Tony Soprano?” in huge letters but Many Saints doesn’t answer that question. Tony barely interacts with anyone and he never becomes involved with typical Mafia-related crime, apart from receiving a set of speakers, but that feels more akin to the hooky goods in Only Fools And Horses rather than forming part of a crime odyssey. There’s also certain forced elements such as “Junior” Soprano’s back injury leading to a vindictive personality, which along with his spectacles, feels like a really bad adaptation of a comic book character. We have lots of other obvious nods to the TV show in a “nudge, nudge, look at that familiar thing in the past” kind of self-referencing way. The camera looking at Satriale’s Meat Market, a character bringing a box of Sfogliatella (and mispronouncing it as “Schfoiadelle”), introducing Salvatore “Big Pussy” and joking about his name, and a baby Christopher Molisanti crying when a young Tony Soprano holds him, all feel false. The Many Saints Of Newark may not be as obvious as that Tolkien movie (this event definitely led to that) but it still feels like the filmmakers have made a contrived, stiff, and artificial backstory.
In either case, this story is more about Tony Soprano’s uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Christopher’s father) but there’s not much reasoning for this. Are all Molisanti’s wife beaters or violent killers? There’s not much exploration of hereditary tempers or psychopathy here (any similarities between Aldo Molitsanti (played by Ray Liotta) and Christopher just seems coincidental). Although Alessandro Nivola plays the lead role of Dickie quite well, he’s not a classic character in the pantheon of Mob movies, and because Dickie isn’t a memorable character, during some of the boring parts of the film I began wondering if he still has those Velociraptor eggs in his bag 😉. In terms of the other actors, Nancy Marchand played Tony Soprano’s mother brilliantly in the show but Vera Farmiga doesn’t come close with her portrayal, and like I said, any character you know from the TV programme feel like impersonations (especially John Magaro as Silvio Dante). Sometimes it feels like this whole thing was made simply because James Gandolfini’s son Michael is an actor and looks a bit like him. Nothing like nepotism to get something lacklustre green-lit.
It has to be said that Alan Taylor is a shite director. There’s no visual style that you can attribute to him (watch Thor: The Dark World or Terminator Genisys for proof). Because of this, Many Saints looks like a generic mob movie; not as lavish and cinematic as Francis Ford Coppola, not as gritty as Martin Scorsese, and not as slick and tense as Brian DePalma. The Many Saints Of Newark belongs on TV. It’s a prequel to a TV show so it looks like a TV show, which you could argue is appropriate, but also unworthy of a cinema ticket. This is the kind of thing made for HBO Max, not for The Odeon. Many Saints is less Godfather and more that Quantum Leap episode where Sam Beckett sings “Volare” (but less enjoyable).
This movie is set amidst the 1967 Newark Riots which as far as I know, began when two white police officers John DeSimone and Vito Pontrelli beat a black cab driver. Given that the cops were of Italian decent, this period of New Jersey history could have been a poignant time to set this movie but nope. It instead feels either overtly “trying too hard to be relevant” (because of the George Floyd protests) or dismissive of historical racism with a cop character at one point saying they “had to rough him up” and then no further exploration of the incident.
There was always an oddly bigoted tone to The Sopranos; here they fleetingly acknowledge police brutality but it also seems like the writers enjoy revelling in negativity such as black people looting rather than focusing on the more important issue of institutional and societal racism. When pretty much all of the characters in The Sopranos are racists (which is arguably accurate when it comes to the Mafia) what’s the point in trying to drag-in black characters since they have no bearing on any of The Sopranos‘ story arcs? Given the casual racism of Tony Soprano (his reaction to his daughter’s black boyfriend for instance) this period of time doesn’t do anything to shape him, so what’s the point?
It was reported that there might be another sequel to come “exploring” Tony Soprano in his 20’s and this flick has an ending that makes way for a sequel involving new character Harold. But given that this first prequel is so pointless, why make another? This has begun to look like a hollow money-making exercise. Hell, if it’s just about making profits, make another sequel so we can finally find out if Anthony Soprano became Donald Trump’s pilot!
I remember the character Silvio quoting Michael Corleone from Godfather Part III in The Sopranos (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”). That’s apt because this follow-up despite being a prequel like Godfather Part II, has more in common with the third and worst film in that trilogy. Many Saints Of Newark is boring, long, and dull. Writers David Chase and Lawrence Konner don’t really know what they’re trying to say or why they’re even making this movie. If you haven’t watched The Sopranos, this isn’t an entertaining movie because there’s no peril or intrigue or any sympathetic characters. If you have watched the TV show, The Many Saints Of Newark doesn’t explain or add anything to the plot of the show. So I reiterate: what’s the point?
Another (better) classic TV show Breaking Bad also had a movie follow-up with El Camino, and it felt kinda unconnected, not only because the actors had aged and put on weight, not only because that time of our lives had passed, but because people’s imaginations come up with better endings and beginnings than a two-hour Hollywood movie. What writers need to realise, is that if you create something worthy of being called a “classic”, anything that comes after will be a disappointment by comparison, and when The Sopranos had such an abrupt and potentially open-ended finish, do we really want a neat and tidy origin story?
Brick City Blues.