The Primetime Emmy Awards were not wrong 21 times. Each award handed out to the cast and crew behind David Chase’s “The Sopranos,” was more than earned. The HBO crime drama rode the wave that was started by “Oz” that brought darker themes to mainstream cable TV. It would provide a new pathway for television protagonists in the form of Tony Soprano. Played without flaw by James Gandolfini, the gangster who sought psychiatric help, pushed audiences to understand how someone so evil could function. The show is less about the mob killings and more about what happens during the funerals of these characters.
“The Sopranos” is capped off with one of the most chilling final hours in television history. After so much foreshadowing towards the death and comeuppance of Tony Soprano, an ambiguous cut to black left everyone begging for more. This year, creator David Chase is returning to the world of the Sopranos in a new prequel film.
“The Many Saints of Newark” takes place in the titular city of New Jersey, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The historical race riots of 1967, which were spurred on by the beating and arrest of taxi driver John William Smith, is the background of the first half. In the second half of the story, Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, is coming of age in high school. His relationship with Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, played by Alessandro Nivola, threatens to pull him into the amoral but seductive world of crime and the mafia.
Those two sides to crime stories are always the painful point of discourse when discussing films like “Goodfellas” or “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “The Sopranos.” Most critics try to deride these as “glamourizing” violence and the lives of excess. Clearly, they don’t pay attention to the last act of the stories in which they pay the price for their selfishness and cruelty.
Director Martin Scorsese put it best when promoting “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Maybe if we were born under different circumstances, maybe we would have made the same mistakes and choices.”
That ability to level with the characters and not look down at them to just point the finger at what goes wrong is also at the core of “Many Saints.” The familial relationships of the story are well-rounded by each performance. Vera Farmiga plays Livia Soprano, mother to Tony, and her fed-up attitude with any inconvenience is a perfect evocation of Nancy Marchand’s performance as the same character in the television series.
Special mentions should also be made for Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts and John Magaro as Silvio Dante. Each captures that tough-guy swagger that may feel cool in their twenties and thirties, but becomes laughable when they are of a much older age in the television series.
The overall plot is sadly lead-footed, and the film does feel like a fan’s only experience. There are a few story culs-de-sac that start to drag, even for a two-hour-long film, that might only be resonant for fans of the original show.
The story of Tony Soprano ended in 2007 with an abrupt cut to black, with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox. Oddly enough, returning to this story in a prequel format feels outdated now. The mainstream has caught up in character development where “The Sopranos” used to feel it was breaking new ground. It is the biggest disappointment to say that “Many Saints of Newark” is only par for the course.