Review: The Many Saints of Newark
By Matthew Huntley
October 10, 2021
“What ‘this’?” Johnny Soprano asks bewilderedly, after his adolescent son, Anthony, yells out, “I don’t want any part of this!” A frustrated Anthony then continues tossing out his new, “hot” stereo speakers from his bedroom window. His indignation stems from his beloved Uncle Dickie ignoring and neglecting him, but little does Anthony know that Dickie’s sudden withdrawal from his life was done out of love, sage advice, and caution. It would be the last favor Dickie would do for Anthony. However, as faithful viewers of the beloved and classic HBO series “The Sopranos” know, it would be a favor Anthony would ultimately not heed, as the “this” refers to a life of crime, a hole into which Anthony “Tony” Soprano would eventually fall deep.
“The Many Saints of Newark,” written by “Sopranos” creator David Chase and fellow show writer Lawrence Konner, and directed by Alan Taylor, who helmed several episodes, is a solid albeit not exactly electrifying crime film. It’s a prequel to the series and sets out to tell us “Who Made Tony Soprano.” To be sure, it does this well, but we also think it could have been done better.
In a classic storytelling way, Taylor, Chase, and Konner have crafted a serviceable drama that holds our attention not only because the material and characters are inherently interesting, but because it adds dimension to the history and mythology of Tony Soprano (inimitably embodied by the late James Gandolfini), who has become such a staple of popular culture and our collective consciousness that anything new we can learn about him is automatically welcomed. “Saints” adds to Tony’s legacy with intriguing developments, and to its credit, it does so without glorifying him but instead by revealing more of his underlying humanity.
Given the consistent reverence, often obsessed fandom, and ongoing viewership of “The Sopranos” (in 2020, the show, which ended its run in 2007, was still one of the most highly streamed), one would think any supplemental “Sopranos Story” such as “The Many Saints of Newark” would fall victim to functioning a mere crowd-pleaser or lame attempt to patronize loyal viewers by simply showing younger versions of the characters and relating information that we either already knew or could have surmised for ourselves (the way “Solo” did as a “A Star Wars Movie”). Fortunately, the filmmakers present to us what could have arguably been a standalone narrative, one that can either acts independently of “The Sopranos” or complements it depending one’s familiarity with the show. And like any well-told story, despite this one only going so far with its themes and subjects, we become immersed in its world and respond to (and care about) the troubled characters inhabiting it.
Like many of its kind, this “Italian crime family” saga has a narrator who guides us through the history, drama, and dynamics of the times, people, and places. In this case, the voice-over comes from beyond the grave, so to speak, because it belongs to Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who reminds us that his Uncle Tony—Tony Soprano—choked him to death.
Tony wasn’t Christopher’s real uncle but was referred to as such because he served as Christopher’s mentor. Theirs is the same kind of relationship a prepubescent Tony (William Ludwig) has with Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Christopher’s father and the main character in “Saints.” Dickie’s story begins in 1967, when he was a primary member of the DiMeo crime syndicate, and it’s under his tutelage and through his struggles that the filmmakers want us to see how Tony became submerged in crime, which would lead to a lifetime of Tony trying to reconcile business, family, and his own mental health.
When it opens, Dickie and Tony greet Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, who else?), upon his return from Italy with his dashing new bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), who speaks little English but still craves respect and acceptance. Giuseppina will come have to play a significant role throughout “Saints,” and even though she’s mostly painted as the standard mistress, sexual object, and victim, the screenplay gives her ambitions and a voice, and De Rossi has the type of presence that makes us listen.
Along with the Moltisantis, other family factions within the greater DiMeo outfit include Tony’s father, Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), and uncle, Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), the latter of whom was a regular on the series and portrayed indelibly by Dominic Chianese. Just as he was on the show, Uncle “June” is a bona fide curmudgeon, no doubt because he’s often the butt of jokes.
Other well-known “Sopranos” characters appearing as 30-years younger versions of their series counterparts are Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen) and Silvio Dante (John Magaro). And even though she has no say in how the DiMeo operations run, Tony’s mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), certainly speaks her mind, and just as the screenplay does for Giuseppina as far as allowing space for a distinct female character, Livia has many scenes that give her extra dimension and provide insight into why her and Tony’s relationship became so tenuous later.
There’s also Tony’s older sister, Janice (Mattea Conforti, Alexandra Intrator), whose confirmation reception becomes a seminal event for Tony because it’s one of the first times he witnesses his Uncle Dickie and other DiMeo members interacting and speaking as criminal cohorts. Tony becomes privier to their role in illegal activities, such as gambling and drug trafficking, and takes their lead to start his own betting scheme at school.
Once the characters are established, the engine driving the plot stems mostly from the Newark riots of 1967, when African-Americans started protesting the racial inequality that was systemic in the city. The riots were particularly inflamed after two white police officers allegedly beat a Black driver to death. This incident affects Dickie indirectly because his Black associate, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), decides, as a Black man, to take up the Black cause and leverage the riots to form his own mob. He eventually becomes Dickie’s chief rival, and their evolving resentment toward each other leads to the movie’s pointed scenes of violence, which include shootouts and shadowed assassinations.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the genre, familial tensions abound; arrests occur; affairs take place; loyalties get tested; bodies get burned; and a despondent Dickie seeks the guidance of his incarcerated Uncle Sally (also played by Liotta), his father’s twin. Standing in Dickie’s shadow and absorbing all the physical and emotional commotion is an adolescent Tony (Michael Gandolfini, son of James), and what he sees, hears, and tries to process is what we’re obviously supposed to believe became integral to his adult disposition. And just in case we forget he’s Tony Soprano, future mob boss, we see Tony committing his own transgressions, such as hijacking an ice cream truck and asking Dickie to steal medication for his mother.
When I mentioned “The Many Saints of Newark” could have been done better, I was specifically referring to the idea that its events and developments, while interesting and captivating enough, feel overly safe and routine. For the record, what transpires isn’t dull or without substance, but nevertheless, the filmmakers don’t veer too far outside their comfort zones or take the kind of chances that might have allowed “Saints” to distinguish itself beyond the conventional mob drama. It stays within its genre’s limits and makes us believe one of the filmmakers’ prerogatives was to not rock the already secure “Sopranos” boat, perhaps out of their wanting to not only lure in new fans but to also not potentially upset pre-existing ones. As a result, the film gives us what we expect, but not much else.
Yes, we do gain more insight into Tony’s upbringing; yes, we do come to appreciate how growing up around such chaos and uncertainty can likely have rippling effects; and yes, the content feels important and relevant. But “The Many Saints of Newark” never quite reaches the status of “essential viewing.” It’s good and watchable, and the performances are strong, especially Nivola, Odom Jr., and Farmiga, but it’s not the type of “Sopranos Story” one would ever feel the need to re-watch. This is unfortunate, because it’s precisely this latter quality that has attached itself to the show and would ideally attach itself to any great film.
Overall, I recommend “The Many Saints of Newark” because it works as satisfying entertainment, but in a better world, it would have dived deeper into its subjects. As it is, we feel it only skims the surface on things such as Dickie’s guilt; the Newark riots; Harold’s motivations for wanting to form his own crew; Livia’s psychosis; and what exactly was going through Tony’s head as all this upheaval was taking place around him. As it is, we only get glimpses into these matters, and even though they’re adequate glimpses, we can’t help but feel mildly betrayed by the filmmakers not digging into them more. Maybe they’re waiting for the next “Sopranos Story” to do this, but before they make it, they should really think about what it is about the show that keeps viewers coming back to it after all these years and then try to make a movie that has the same effect. I’m sure it wouldn’t be easy, but they should try.