Many Thoughts on The Many Saints of Newark
By Colin Hart
Although The Many Saints of Newark is billed as “A Sopranos Story,” the final product couldn’t be further from our memory of the iconic television series. This begs the question: how exactly did we get here?
David Chase originally conceived The Sopranos in the mid-1990s as a film about “a mobster in therapy having problems with his mother.” Inspired by his own personal life growing up in New Jersey and influenced by classic gangster films like Goodfellas, The Godfather and Public Enemy, Chase wrote a pilot script and eventually pitched the idea to HBO in 1997.
After decades of dead ends as a television writer, Chase’s unspoken wish was that The Sopranos pilot would never be ordered to series and that HBO would instead release it as a two-hour film. Luckily, that wasn’t the case — The Sopranos would go on to become nothing less than the greatest TV show of all time, revolutionizing and transcending the art form in the process.
From its groundbreaking debut in 1999 to its divisive conclusion in 2007, The Sopranos remained part of the cultural zeitgeist. And in the decades since that infamous cut-to-black, the TV show has only grown in stature. It’s place in the pantheon of American masterpieces is secure.
On the other hand, The Many Saints of Newark isn’t The Sopranos, no matter how hard it tries. The film has the unenviable task of following up the most famous series finale of all time, which puts it at an insurmountable disadvantage right away. Not only that, but Many Saints is also asked to fit everything we love about the original series into a compact two-hour runtime. The movie is set up for failure.
I guess the fact that Many Saints is a prequel rather than a sequel helps its cause, but no one was ever really clamoring for more backstory about Tony Soprano’s youth to begin with. We’ve already logged countless hours delving into his past via his therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi. Likewise, the ambiguity surrounding his childhood ultimately helped strengthen his characterization in the present. There’s really no need to explore the Mafia “golden age” that Tony so often idealized throughout the series.
In truth, there is only one aspect of The Sopranos that warrants expansion: does Tony die at the end? One of the few things that The Many Saints of Newark gets right is in avoiding that question entirely. Nevertheless, the film noticeably lacks a definable raison d’être, other than the fact it was guaranteed to generate revenue by capitalizing on a pandemic-related resurgence in Sopranos popularity.
The Many Saints of Newark Forgets that It’s a Film
One of The Sopranos’ greatest innovations was how the series used cinematic influences to transcend television’s limitations. Yet one of the surprising drawbacks about The Many Saints of Newark is just how episodic the whole thing feels. Too often, the film forgets that it’s not a TV show.
Sure, David Chase re-wrote the rules for what television is capable of, but the rules between television and film will forever be different. For one, The Sopranos proved that plot on a TV series is secondary to characterization, and storylines can be given the freedom to naturally develop over a long period of time. In a film, however, a lack of story can only be countered with a strong sense of direction, which is something that Alan Taylor fails to provide.
Over the course of six seasons, eight years and 86 episodes, The Sopranos crafted an intricate world populated with unforgettable characters. However, none of these characters are actually featured in Many Saints. Although we get to see younger versions of Tony, Livia, Uncle Junior and many others, they are only the same “character” in name only. The actors are different and the dramatis personae are 30 years younger, but the film bypasses characterization under the assumption that we should already be familiar with the backstory.
The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t make logical sense as a standalone story without The Sopranos to prop it up, which should be expected since, after all, it is a TV tie-in. Nonetheless, it’s still a bit surprising that a series known for “one-hour movies” (episodes like “College” and “Pine Barrens,” for example) would struggle so mightily with a feature-length film. It’s as if Chase has forgotten everything he essentially invented.
That includes the “auteur era” of TV, in which the showrunner is given complete creative control of a series. In film theory, however, that honor belongs to the director — Alan Taylor, in this case. Even though Taylor is an accomplished veteran with credits that include Mad Men, Deadwood, Game of Thrones and The Sopranos (he helmed pivotal episodes like “Kennedy and Heidi” and “The Blue Comet”), his filmography isn’t quite as noteworthy. As a director-for-hire on movies like Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisys, Taylor never made the successful transition from small to big screen.
With Many Saints, Taylor plays the role of director-for-hire once again, which means that Chase is ultimately responsible for the film’s shortcomings. Perhaps it would’ve been better if Chase was behind the camera. He did a great job with the series premiere, series finale and the 2012 indie drama Not Fade Away.
Many Saints’ biggest problem is the fact that it doesn’t know what it wants to be … and wouldn’t know how to do it anyways.
The film tries to provide fan service, but the appearances by Silvio Dante (portrayed by John Magaro) and Uncle Junior (portrayed by Corey Stoll) are played like poor impressions rather than anything resembling real people. Although Chase has always held his audience in contempt, he should give Sopranos fans enough credit to not be satisfied by cheap thrills: “Look, there’s Carmela Soprano when she was a teenager!” or “That’s the same flashback scene from ‘Down Neck!’”
The film also tries to tell an original story about Dickie Moltisanti, the oft-mentioned deceased father of Christopher. Amidst all the fan service, however, the movie never fully commits. Played by Alessandro Nivola, Dickie is the most interesting and charismatic — and best-acted — character in all of Newark. But his story isn’t all that original to begin with.
Dickie is a morally conscious gangster who longs to do “one good deed” despite perpetrating some of the most heinous acts in The Sopranos universe. He kills his abusive father (“Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti, played by Ray Liotta), steals his comare and then ends up drowning her in the Passaic River after she cheats on him. Nevertheless, this story of Oedipal desires — which is right at home with some of The Sopranos’ more Freudian themes — isn’t given ample room to grow.
Despite some strong ideas, Many Saints never develops a rhythm. It’s obviously trying to do too much and ironically feels like a series of episodes as a result. In fact, the film’s most interesting aspect is the first scene, in which Taylor’s camera cranes downward into a cemetery and settles on the grave of Christopher Moltisanti, who narrates the story from beyond the grave despite having no knowledge of the events that took place.
This framing device (occurring sometime after “Made in America,” thus making Many Saints a sequel of sorts) fits right in with the surreal aspects typical of the series. It also calls into question the reliability of the depicted storyline, lending some much-needed ambiguity to a run-of-the-mill Mafia tale. Not that the ghost of Chris can save the story of his family — the world of Dickie Moltisanti is an unimaginative rip-off of Goodfellas, The Godfather and The Sopranos itself.
Nivola’s best efforts are unfortunately undermined by a listless Ray Liotta, the former Hollywood star who turns in the worst performance of the film. Thankfully, “Hollywood” Dick falls victim to patricide early on, showing that domestic abuse and family violence are part of the Moltisanti’s DNA. Once he’s out of the picture, Many Saints starts to take form.
Still, the film too often strays from the main storyline. Dickie Moltisanti’s quest for meaning is set against the backdrop of the 1967 Newark riots, which gives us a somewhat irrelevant subplot about Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.), an ambitious African-American gangster fighting for equality.
The Sopranos was far inferior to shows like The Wire when it came to depicting minorities, and this social commentary on race relations almost seems like a way of making amends while also remaining topical. Once again, however, the idea isn’t afforded an opportunity to properly develop, and the shoehorned story of Harold McBrayer ultimately has nothing meaningful to say. He’s only there to sleep with Giuseppina and serve as Dickie’s foil.
What About Tony Soprano?
Even though ‘Moltisanti’ translates as ‘many saints,’ The Many Saints of Newark bears the tagline “Who Made Tony Soprano?” A Sopranos film obviously needs the mob boss who made it all possible, but we don’t even see teenage Tony until we’ve reached the midway point.
A time jump to 1972 shows Tony as a moody teenager not too dissimilar from his future son, AJ. As expected, the scenes involving Tony and his mother, Livia, provide the film’s emotional backbone, somehow making the whole thing somewhat worthwhile. They’re easily the most relatable and believable characters.
Michael Gandolfini steps into his late father’s shoes and immediately breathes life into a lifeless film. Not only does he resemble James Gandolfini; he resembles Tony Soprano as well. Although Dickie remains the de facto main character, the teenage Tony carries the same gravitas and magnetism that his adult counterpart conveyed throughout the original series. He steals the show.
The same is true of Livia — Vera Farmiga pulls off a perfect duplicate of Nancy Marchand’s delightfully toxic nihilism. In fact, I actually have more sympathy for Livia’s character as a result. Watching her struggle to raise the Soprano family by herself (Johnny Boy Soprano was in prison during Tony’s formative years) explains how she’d develop such a cold and unloving personality.
If there’s something The Many Saints of Newark manages to get right, it’s the portrayals of the two most important characters from the series.
If nothing else, The Many Saints of Newark isn’t quite as bad as I’ve made it sound. Even though I’ve found issue with pretty much everything the film has to offer, the main emotion I felt while watching it was disappointment rather than disgust. Following up the greatest TV show of all time is pretty much impossible, and we’re unfortunately reminded of The Sopranos’ greatness with every frame.
Everything that The Sopranos was, The Many Saints of Newark isn’t — artful, poignant, humorous, ambitious, original, realistic and thought-provoking.
But somehow the film makes some sort of twisted sense by following its own nonsensical logic. Perhaps I’m giving Chase too much benefit of the doubt, yet Many Saints works best when considered as some bastardized avant-garde hybrid of TV and film. It’s one of the most confounding things I’ve ever watched.
Joining the likes of El Camino, Deadwood: The Movie and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as films that continue the stories of beloved TV shows, The Many Saints of Newark adds a fitting addendum to The Sopranos mythos. Unlike those films, however, Many Saints is still worse than every episode that ever aired (save for maybe “Christopher”).
Dickie Moltisanti predictably gets murdered by an unpredictable Uncle Junior, leaving Tony anxiously waiting at Holsten’s diner for a man that never comes. Supposedly, this is the event that turns him into the sociopathic mob boss we know and love. And then … the film just ends? Despite the allusions to Holsten’s, the sudden conclusion isn’t meant as an homage to the series finale.
Even with some promising ideas, The Many Saints of Newark fails to tell a single cohesive story. Yet the mystic allure of The Sopranos, however faint, still manages to capture our attention. We come away from the film extremely disappointed, but nevertheless wanting more.
Perhaps the entire thing would’ve worked better as — you guessed it — a TV show.
- Uncle Junior orders a hit on Dickie Moltisanti because of the fact that Dickie laughed at him when he fell down the church steps. It shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that Junior wanted to kill Tony for making fun of him in “Boca.” Either way, Harold McBrayer’s crew was probably going to kill Dickie anyways.
- In the season four premiere, “For All Debts Public and Private,” Tony coerces Christopher into “killing the man who murdered his father.” That man is a retired police officer who claims to have no knowledge of Dickie. In the series, the answer was left ambiguous, but it seems that Many Saints confirms that Tony was just taking advantage of Chris to get rid of an unrelated enemy.
- Ray Liotta also plays Hollywood Dick’s twin brother, Sally, who is serving a lifelong prison sentence. Dickie comes to Sally for advice (in return he asks for a copy of Miles Davis‘ Birth of the Cool), and he tells Dickie to stay out of young Tony Soprano’s life. Liotta’s performance as Sally is much better than his stereotypical turn as Hollywood Dick.
- The narration by Christopher means that the story actually takes place after the series finale, thus making it a sequel by definition. However, we don’t know the precise time it takes place. Chris’ ghost mentions that “After he murdered me, Tony gave my wife and baby his pocket change. But that was much later.” Was it enough time later that it means Tony doesn’t die at the end, as he was still alive long enough to provide for Chris’ wife and child?
- The film’s mise-en-scène features an ugly, chrome-saturated effect. Taylor’s slow-moving direction is given a dreary colorization by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, which stands in stark contrast to the heavy chiaroscuro often utilized by Alik Sakharov and Phil Abraham. The scenery is impossibly dull.
- Is the movie so bad that it’s good? If so, Many Saints has the makings of a cult classic. There’s a terrible fantasy sequence in which Dickie imagines a blind baseball team that is so preposterously strange it’s actually brilliant.
- After Dickie kills his father, a raven watches on, similar to “Fortunate Son.”
- The Soprano family watches Key Largo in the living room, a film that is probably 100x better than Many Saints.
- One of Tony’s best memories is when his mother snuggled up to him close one night and read him a children’s book, a memory that would’ve been very helpful to Dr. Melfi.
- An underrated element of Many Saints is its intense action sequences. The shootout between Harold’s crew and the Soprano gang is one of the most visceral and violent scenes in the entire series.
- Similar to the TV series, there are some great musical cues, but they’re not enough to save the movie. This includes: “Sway” and “Mother’s Little Helper” by The Rollins Stones, “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison, and several selections by Gil-Scott Heron.
- The Many Saints of Newark was written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner, and directed by Alan Taylor.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “I met death on Route 23, not too far from here. But that was much later.”
- “The little fat kid’s my uncle, Tony Soprano.”
- “You used to throw my mother down the stairs. I didn’t like it then, I don’t like it now.”