February 3, 2022

The Many Saints of Newark

4 min read
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By: Hannah Strong

It speaks to The Sopranos’ enduring reputation that even the trailer for its spin-off feature film couldn’t resist using the iconic musical cue which is seared into the brain of anyone who’s ever seen the show’s open credits – the Chosen One remix of Alabama 3’s hip hop anthem ‘Woke Up This Morning’. It’s a small detail, but speaks to a wider question about David Chase and Lawrence Konner’s prequel project; how do you make a story about America’s most infamous crime family without retreading old ground? Chase and Konner opted to go backwards instead of forwards, following the antics of a teenage Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini’s son Michael) and – more prominently – his uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) against the backdrop of 1970s Newark, New Jersey.

That isn’t to say we’re without familiar faces – fan favourites Silvio Dante and Paulie Walnuts are recast in their youth (John Magaro and Billy Magnussen respectively) while the Soprano clan gets extended out, with Jon Bernthal and Vera Farmiga playing Tony’s parents, and Corey Stoll a dead-ringer for the weasely “Uncle Junior”. It’s undoubtedly a handsome cast, but everyone who loves The Sopranos knows it was so much more than the sum of its parts, delving into mental illness, combustible family dynamics, and what lies at the rotten heart of the United States of America: the all-consuming desire for more.

With that sort of legacy resting on its shoulders, The Many Saints of Newark was always going to face an uphill battle to match the brilliance of its televised predecessor, but perhaps the show’s popularity even 14 years after its final episode aired was too much of a temptation for HBO.

Newark finds itself a city divided in the 1970s, with racial tensions flaring between Black and white residents – in particular the DiMeo crime family. For a teenage Anthony Soprano, concerns mostly focus around petty squabbles and his college prospects, but he idolises Uncle Dickie, particularly after his own father winds up in prison. Alas, Dickie’s no saint, embroiled in all manner of personal and professional scandals – and anyone familiar with Tony Soprano’s character arc will undoubtedly know where the runaway train is headed from the start.

Unfortunately, the film’s stubborn focus on Dickie Moltisanti and his philandering ways pulls away from the wonderful performance Michael Gandolfini puts in as young Tony, emulating his father without at all seeming self-conscious. There’s a sweetness to his character too; this is, of course, Tony Soprano when he still stood half a chance. But with such a large cast of characters crammed into a two-hour runtime, it’s difficult to really get to know them (the show was at an obvious advantage here, giving us so much time to know and love – or hate – the extended Soprano clan). The always compelling Leslie Odom Jr plays Harold McBrayer, an ambitious small-time crook working for Dickie Moltisanti who sees an opportunity to hit the big time, but he barely gets a look-in, as does Tony’s revered father, the infamous Johnny Boy Soprano.

It’s an obvious attempt to mirror Tony’s future relationship with Dickie’s son Christopher Moltisanti, whom he mentored throughout The Sopranos, but it’s heavy-handed and lacks the tragic grace of the television show. What does remain is a lot of brutality, although most of it is directed towards Black characters, which feels like a misstep considering how little the film does to give them a real presence.

There are some positives: Corey Stoll is a stand-out as self-serious schemer Junior Soprano, and the film does echo the petty machismo which leads to so many unfortunate events within the television show. But this is part of the problem – everything about The Many Saints of Newark feels like a pale imitation of its source material. As a world-building curio, it’s passable, and die-hard fans will get a kick out of some of the show references, but it takes all the elements which make The Sopranos special and flattens the nuance, Sopranos in name but not in nature. With a forgettable – borderline generic – plot and direction lacking flair and artistry, it’s not a disaster, it’s just a disappointment. But perhaps, like the Mad King Tony Soprano himself, it never stood a chance.


ANTICIPATION.

An enticing cast, but can lightning strike twice?
4

ENJOYMENT.

Gandolfi and Stoll are stand-outs in a generic gangster narrative.
3

IN RETROSPECT.


We’ll always have Pine Barrens.

2


Directed by



Alan Taylor

Starring



Alessandro Nivola,


Jon Bernthal,


Leslie Odom Jr,


Michael Gandolfini

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