It’s a daunting task to revisit one of the most famous, most scrutinized, most discussed and most revered television series of all time and transfer it to the big screen.
HBO darling The Sopranos, heralded as the gold standard for TV, famously ended ambiguously and left some fans wanting more. In prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark, we may not get all the satisfaction of returning to our (anti-)heroes as we knew them, but we get to explore the early life of Tony Soprano, played here by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, in his teen years, and William Ludwig as the pre-pubescent Tony.
What you find out rather quickly is the movie isn’t really about Tony. While it explores some of the reasons why he becomes who he becomes — a threatening, some might say sociopathic, mobster — the film mainly focuses on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle and father to Christopher, another major Sopranos character. When Tony’s father is sent to the slammer, Dickie takes on a more fatherly role and influences Tony’s development.
Do I have to know about The Sopranos to see this movie?
Part of the appeal of Many Saints of Newark is seeing the younger versions of characters you know and love (and loathe). If you haven’t seen the TV show, it might be a lot less interesting to watch the proceedings as the movie’s main story isn’t exactly spellbinding stuff. If you’ve watched The Sopranos, every interaction and line of dialogue has the potential to thrill, as there are many throwbacks to the show’s lines and occurrences.
We even get to see the butcher shop in all its glory, again far more meaningful if you’ve watched the series. So while it’s not imperative, it undoubtedly enriches the experience.
Why is the main story not spellbinding?
The stories of The Sopranos are many, and are interweaving. To condense this complicated a series into a two-hour movie is pretty much an impossible task, so the result tends to be rather surface-brush. You simply can’t address every single origin story in full. We learn a lot about Dickie, and the movie features a secondary main story with a brand-new Black character, Harold McBrayer (played intensely by Leslie Odom Jr.).
The two characters are presented side by side, and as dramatic foils, their respective growth and decline reflect off the other. Through Harold, we also get a deeper look into the 1967 Newark Riots.
How is Michael Gandolfini in the role?
He’s not in the movie as much as you’d think based on the marketing, but when he’s on-screen you can definitely see his father in him. He’s got the body language down and is wholly believable in the role. The even younger actor, Ludwig, is magnetic, and is pretty much exactly how you’d picture a 10- or 11-year-old Tony.
What about the side characters?
Whoever casted this movie deserves an award. From the casting of Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga) to Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll) to Silvio Dante (John Magaro) and more, it’s a feast for Sopranos fans. I found myself wanting more, more, more, especially scenes with Livia. There simply weren’t enough, or they may have ended up on the cutting room floor.
Another interesting new character is Dickie’s mistress, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), who hails from the Italian homeland and is brought to America by Dickie’s father. The more women included in this testosterone-laden world, the better, which is probably why I craved more scenes with Livia.
So what’s the bottom line?
Saints of Newark isn’t so much of a “Tony Soprano backstory” as it is another story about the characters we knew from The Sopranos. It’s a trip for fans of the show, and the little Easter eggs throughout indicate series creator and writer David Chase (who also co-wrote this movie) had this audience in mind.
Of course, the as-expected violence and vulgarity may not be for everyone, so be warned.
‘The Many Saints of Newark’ opens in theatres across Canada on Oct. 1. Please check your local listings for details.
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