Tony Soprano may or may not be dead, but unfortunately James Gandolfini is, so to continue The Sopranos saga, creator David Chase has flipped back the calendar to craft something of an origins story for America’s favorite crime family in The Many Saints Of Newark. Set for domestic release while wedded to a simultaneous HBO Max bow on October 1, the Warner Bros/New Line film has its world premiere on September 22 at the Tribeca Fall Preview at New York’s Beacon Theater.
For the legion of the series’ fans, there will be adjustments to be made, voids to be filled. And it takes a little while. We didn’t spend just a couple of hours in one movie with all those fabulous actors in indelible roles — we lived with them for eight years through 86 episodes of compelling, obsessive, highly addictive viewing.
Chase, who scripted the Alan Taylor-directed film with with writing partner Lawrence Konner, summons up aspects of his own 1960s Newark youth: the largely Italian North Ward, and its conflict with the Black working class Central Ward, which erupted into terribly destructive and deadly racial violence in the summer of 1967. Threaded through this are the often startling internal eruptions of assorted Italian crime families that eventually led to the emergence of a kid named Tony Soprano. Very fortuitously, young Tony is played by Gandolfini’s son Michael, who, now in his early 20s, bears something more than a passing resemblance to his father.
Hardly by chance, the story begins in a cemetery, where a fair share of the characters end up considerably sooner than age expectancy statistics would suggest. Underlining the point, a narrator also speaks to us from the beyond. The name of the game in Newark at that time was the numbers racket, and who was in charge was dependent upon who was or wasn’t in prison at any given moment.
The big boss is “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti (as in “many saints”), a loud, rash and vulgar character who’s just brought home a young new bride from the old country and is accustomed to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. But the old man (Ray Liotta) is also rash and noticeably losing it, providing an opening for his handsome and capable son Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) to assert more power. The latter also assumes some responsibility for young Tony, taking him under his wing and eventually becoming an important role model for the kid, whose own father Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal) is more often behind bars than at home.
Even if you’ve watched The Sopranos in its entirely and paid close attention, it takes some real concentration to confidently figure out who’s who here, to connect characters we’re used to as older people now a good generation younger. A cheat sheet could be helpful at times.
The perennially complaining and conniving “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll) has differences with Tony that go way back. Big Pussy was not always as big as he later became, and a quick glimpse of perennial Soprano insider Silvio Dante (John Magaro in Steve Van Zandt’s longtime role) should end any speculation about the character’s abundant hair.
At the heart of the matter in Chase’s jam-packed script is the unprecedented violence that has overtaken the streets of Newark. Mom and pop stores and ordinary folks’ homes become ground zero for a level of violence long unheard of in major American cities. Neighbor fights neighbor and conflagrations break out in a disturbing way. This aspect of urban life, in which tensions were always there but rarely exploded into mayhem and killings, will no doubt hit home strongly in the wake of the unrest and clashes in the U.S. last year.
When we first met all these characters 22 years ago, they already had it made; with the ruthless uphill battle having been won, the Sopranos had moved to suburbia, after which it became a matter of keeping and consolidating their power. In the television series, the characters flew off the handle and became reckless at times, but it can’t compare with the wild and crazy methods they perpetrated when they were striving and looking to make their mark. In Saints, it’s shocking to see what they were willing to do to their own neighborhood.
Just about everything here is well and no doubt accurately observed — the family-owned stores, the simmering animosities, the braggadocio of the men, the short tempers and, something new, the increasing unwillingness of the women to automatically accept and kowtow to the men’s whims and egos, even if they remain subservient to them.
Although the Mafia could scarcely be more male-centric, Chase has always focused considerable attention on the women of that world. Tony’s wife and shrink remain far in the distant future at this point, but it’s interesting to see his mother Livia, so trenchantly played in the series by Nancy Marchand, depicted more warmly here, before she’s been warped, diminished and excluded by male-dominant attitudes. Watching Vera Farmiga’s take on this beleaguered character is one of the delights of the film.
Fittingly, it’s The Sopranos theme song that comes on at the end of The Many Saints Of Newark. Chase’s characters and this material always satisfy just as they leave you ready for more.