When the final episode of The Sopranos aired, a finality was concluded to an unforgettable story. Its legacy is unmatched. So when all is said and done . . . what more was left to say?
As it turns out, quite a lot! The Many Saints of Newark (marketed with the subtitle A Sopranos Story), is for fans who have an extensive knowledge of the show’s history. Approaching this film with expectations that it will spoon-feed those uninitiated viewers . . . well . . . you may want to sit down. Those loyal viewers, however – including those who are on their fifth rewatch – will be rewarded with a haunting and even surprising tale as to how the Soprano family came to be.
While viewers may anticipate a bloodbath, there is a touch of subtlety to the proceedings. The feeling of watching an episode of the show is seemingly replicated, as an equal share of time is split between drama and brutality. Racial tensions and the idea of the “American Dream” were at times evident in the show, but The Many Saints of Newark fleshes them out into a narrative. The violence of the film does not entirely rely on a gun being used within the scene. As the needle-drop soundtrack dictates, this is the time where the sixties moulded into the seventies. Newark is burning.
While some viewers may anticipate deli meats aplenty, this is not that type of story. David Chase reunites with The Sopranos collaborator Alan Taylor to unearth the story of a mythicised character from the show’s lore. The film’s protagonist is Dickie Moltisanti – Moltisanti translates to “Many Saints” for those of you keeping track – who is synonymous to the show’s viewers as the father to Christopher Moltisanti, one of the show’s major characters. Dickie is rarely spoken of, but it’s clear that the man left an enormous impact on one Tony Soprano.
Dickie more than serves as eligible for the mystique his character imposes. While some of it may boil down to Chase’s love for seemingly having troubled characters sit before a therapeutic figure – which is surprisingly executed here – Alessandro Nivola’s contributions must not be overlooked. Nivola blends a sense of charisma, evil and even pathos into a character who arguably made Tony Soprano into the man he became. Like many around him, Dickie has done some terrible things. But what sets him apart from most wiseguys is that he seemingly wants to genuinely do good to make up for misdeeds. It is this internalised selfish conflict that leads him to be in Tony’s life. He recognises that Tony’s parents are nowhere near up to the task, and so he makes sure he can be there for him. This also creates an engrossing conflict within himself because, as ably shown by Michael Gandolfini’s wonderful performance, Tony exudes virtue when compared to the life that Dickie leads. Is he willing and able, flaws and all – including a sizeable Oedipal complex – to be a role model for Tony?
Chase’s use of narration throughout The Many Saints of Newark grants an almost elegiac style to the proceedings. This opens the film, and its limited use throughout is intriguing. Like an omnipresent ghost, it is there to serve as a reminder rather than an informer. Viewers of the show will be familiar with the merciless dispatching of characters. The film does not have a season’s worth of television run-time to drop hints and build up to a character’s impending doom. Rather, it must use what little time it has to plant the seeds in the viewer’s mind. While some instances will surprise, there are others whose foreshadowing seems slightly heavy-handed.
The film’s crowning achievement is that it never loses sight of its primary focus. The relationship between Dickie and Tony is the epicentre. Chase never lets the viewer forget this. Moreover, it must be praised for its decision to not feature the multitude of younger characters from the show’s canon simply for the sake of it. These characters aren’t underused, they just don’t feature in scenes where they would have distracted. When they are used, however, the performances are engaging. Although, one wishes John Magaro would take it down a notch or two in his portrayal of Silvio. Then again, if there is a subtle way to play a young Silvio, this reviewer has simply not conceived of the possibility.
With The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase has answered the doubters. To return to the world of The Sopranos would run the risk of damaging the reputation that the show finished on. However, Chase has wisely chosen against giving into the insurmountable weight of fan expectations. In a move akin to Vince Gilligan’s El Camino, the writer has provided a more focused glimpse into this world. The film essentially serves as a companion piece. Where El Camino provided an epilogue to its respective story, The Many Saints of Newark provides a prologue – a journey into the past that viewers knew only fragments of.
The Many Saints of Newark provides answers to the questions viewers only had guesses for. It even answers some questions that we didn’t realise we had in the first place. Not only is Chase able to construct a story centering on perhaps the world’s favourite crime family, but he is also able to create characters such as Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold MacBrayer and Michela De Rossi’s Giuseppina Bruno, giving them their own personal quests that don’t just feel shoehorned in. With these specifically in mind, viewers will almost wish that this were a mini-series where more time could be given to their characters.
David Chase knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder. There are always going to be arguments for the preservation of mystique over everything deserving its own show/film seemingly for the sake of fan service. However, Chase is not the type of person to bow to fan service of any kind. Just ask him to explain the ending of The Sopranos!