The evocative opening of The Many Saints of Newark has the camera touring a
cemetery. As the shot moves closer and closer to a particular tombstone, it
passes by some others, and disembodied voices emerge from somewhere—that other
place on the other side—to tell the stories of lives now ended. Now, there's the
fact of the tombstone in question, as well as the question of what to say about
whose it is. This is the point to note that this film serves as precursor to
that great, once-in-a-generation-or-more television show "The Sopranos."
The story here takes place decades before the events of the show, so in theory,
it's a fine enough starting point for anyone who somehow has allowed the show to
pass them by, in the 14 years since it ended. Some characters from the show
appear as their younger selves, and others, who died before the show's timeline
but whose histories meant something to the story of the series in some form or
another, appear, as well.
David Chase, who created the show and wrote more than a third of the episodes,
and Lawrence Konner's screenplay is more or less a clean slate. On its own, the
film is a years-spanning, multi-character crime story about gangsters in and
around the eponymous New Jersey city, as they deal with familial problems, turf
and business squabbles, and determining whose lives are worth less than the
trouble of ending them.
Those who don't know the show won't necessarily be lost. With that opening shot
and the film's choice of narrator, though, the screenwriters and director Alan
Taylor definitely let it be known that this film is for those who already know
these characters, have a grasp of the story from "much later" (as the dead
narrator puts it), and understand how these past events fit into the narrative
and thematic backdrop of the television show.
The result is a decent balance of providing intrigue, as well as a
character-driven standalone story, for the uninitiated and a bit more flavor, as
well as some clever callbacks (from spoken-of events to the way these
performances capture the spirit of characters and performances we know so well),
for fans of Chase's revolutionary show. It's what it is, because this is what it
needs to be.
The tale begins in 1967, as Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) welcomes his
father Aldo (Ray Liotta) home from a stay in Italy. Dad has brought a younger
wife, named Giuesppina (Michela De Rossi), with him, too. Dickie is married to
Joanne (Gabriella Piazza), but he and his new stepmother start making eyes at
each other during the first dinner together as a new family.
Here's where matters—in terms of plot and characters—get a bit complicated. The
Moltisanti crime family is connected to the Soprano clan, currently made up of
patriarch Johnny (Jon Bernthal), his wife Livia (Vera Farmgia), and his brother
Junior (Corey Stoll). That family matters, of course, because Johnny and Livia's
son is a 10-year-old and later teenaged Anthony "Tony" Soprano, the central
character of the TV show (as if that needs to be mentioned), as immortalized by
the late, great James Gandolfini.
One might imagine that the story of this film would belong to Tony, who's
played, in a rather touching and eerily effective piece of casting, by Michael
Gandolfini, the son of the show's star, once a few years of narrative pass
(William Ludwig first plays the character here). It doesn't belong to him, in
that Tony is more an inactive supporting character to all of the internal and
external conflicts faced by the conjoined family. It also does—or, for those
aware of what the future holds for this younger Tony, it does—revolve around
him, in that the kid is observing what these fathers, father figures, mothers,
uncles, family friends, and business associates are saying and doing, while
taking in and figuring out what those actions and secrets mean for his own life
The story surrounding Tony is fascinating in the same way the show was, if not
to the same degree. The plot—of which there is a lot, involving a racial
uprising and lots of back-stabbing and the rise of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom
Jr.) as a rival to the Moltisanti/Soprano bookmaking business—is far less
important than the other details. As Dickie makes some moves that give him more
power but make him question himself (as a boss and, later, as a father figure to
Tony), the focus remains on the personalities on display, the atmosphere of
always-looming doom, and the feeling that these characters are trapped in a
never-ending cycle but always-expanding circle of violence, betrayal, and
self-fulfilling prophecies of desperation and depression.
Some moments, such as Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen) stealing a TV
before attending a funeral, are simply here for humor (It's funny by itself—and
funnier if one knows that's exactly what the guy would do). Some details, such
as a random slip giving Junior a persistent back problem or the spot-on
physicality of John Magaro's Silvio, are here for fans. A scene in which Livia,
after learning that Tony vividly recalls her reading him a bedtime story as a
kid, tries—and ultimately fails—to play the good mother for once feels like the
best of everything the filmmakers are doing with this material.
The Many Saints of Newark doesn't fill in all the gaps (For a film based on a
show that ended as "The Sopranos" did, those expectations would have been
absurd), although it does leave itself open for a sequel. On its own, the film
is a solid and admirably eccentric gangster tale.