As I entered the theater to see The Many Saints of Newark, I felt cautiously optimistic. A prequel movie to The Sopranos, coming out fourteen years after the show had ended, smelled like a classic Hollywood cash-grab. But there were reasons to be excited: David Chase, the show’s creator, was co-writing the script; Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti in the show, was going to have a role; and finally, what really got me hyped was that the son of James Gandolfini, who played the lead role of Tony Soprano on the show, was going to play a younger version of his father’s beloved character. So I thought: You know what? This could be good. How foolish I was.
The Many Saints of Newark takes us back to the childhood years of Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) well before he decided to become a gangster. The movie begins with a chilling voiceover by the spirit of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who sets us up to hear the origin story of future mob boss Tony Soprano. But it’s actually Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle, whom we follow for most of the story. Tony is more of a side character than anything else. And I honestly would have no problem with a movie about Dickie—he’s an intriguing character who we heard so much about in the show. But the creators couldn’t seem to see beyond a Sopranos story that didn’t involve Tony. So instead we get a movie about Dickie, with Tony awkwardly crammed in at every opportunity without giving him an active role. We see Dickie introducing Tony to gambling by encouraging him to bet at every opportunity, Tony’s violent home environment, Tony getting into trouble at school. But, besides punching some kid for calling him a “jerk-off,” Tony never really does anything definitive to the plot or his own character arc; everything is done to him. And if that’s the point, that Tony Soprano had little say in his own fate, then the movie contradicts one of the central motifs of the show. Though in all seven seasons of the show, Tony constantly complains that he “had no choice,” that he was “born into this” (“this” being the mafioso life), we know that that’s not true; despite his traumatizing upbringing and the negative influences his parents and their friends had on him, Tony Soprano absolutely had a choice in his sociopathic, murderous lifestyle as an adult. That’s what makes him the complex anti-hero that we root for, despite knowing he’s a horrible person. The movie strips away this complexity by presenting Tony as a passive victim of a rough upbringing.
This begets what I think is the central flaw of the movie: its lack of any nuance or subtlety. Take, for example, the beloved moment in The Sopranos when Uncle Junior, whose mental state is deteriorating, can’t stop telling everyone at dinner that Tony “never had the makings of a varsity athlete.” After the episode aired, the line became such a popular meme among fans; to this day, the comment section of any Youtube video related to The Sopranos is bound to have at least one top comment which jokingly references the line. Given the scene’s popularity, it was hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be a call-back to it in The Many Saints of Newark. And there was: during one scene, Tony sits at the table with Uncle Junior and some other characters and discusses his dream of going to college for football. While he’s talking, the movie cuts to a reaction shot of Uncle Junior shaking his head. It was hilarious, and any fan of the show immediately got what they were going for. But for some reason, the movie felt the need to have Junior literally say: “he doesn’t have the makings of a varsity athlete.” It was so unnecessary, like someone explaining the joke they just made even though everyone got it. If this seems nitpicky, this was just the most glaring example of the constant lack of subtlety in the movie. In a later scene, when teenage Tony is called to the principal’s office, the movie forces a painfully obvious parallel to Tony’s therapy with Dr. Melfi, one of the centerpieces of the original show. And then, right after, the principal talks to Tony’s mom, Livia (Vera Farmiga), and reveals to her that Tony has a very high IQ and that, according to a personality test, he is a “leader.” Instead of showing Tony’s leadership or his intelligence, the movie opts to tell us, an odd choice since the original series’ themes were understated and allowed the viewer to reach their own conclusions. Each episode of The Sopranos gave the viewer a lot to contemplate after the credits rolled; The Many Saints of Newark, on the other hand, does the thinking for the viewer and little remains for them to uncover on their own.
There were so many other issues with the movie; the younger versions of Sil, Paulie, Pussy, Junior, et cetera—all principle characters in The Sopranos—were pretty much just comic relief characters, and all of them were flattened to caricatures. It reminded me of the SNL skit The Sopranos Diaries in which Sil, Paulie, Pussy, and Tony go to high school together and act like cliché teenage versions of their older selves. The Many Saints of Newark also runs into some huge issues with its B plot. Half of the film is dedicated to the story of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a Black ex-associate of Dickie who goes off on his own and starts a rival gang in New Jersey, because he realizes working within the extremely racist Italian mob was limiting his potential. His story was really interesting, and even though he was not in the original show (he was never even referenced as far as I’m aware), I thought he was a great character and I have no qualms with his inclusion. But, again, when you frame a movie to be about Tony and then tell two main stories in which Tony is just a side character, it makes me wonder why we couldn’t just have a movie about Harold McBayer, or Dickie Moltisanti, or both.
While I think the choice to depict the disgusting anti-Black attitudes of the mob was important, the movie focuses a lot on Black issues and makes a lot of parallels to the Black Lives Matter protests, even though both writers and the director were all white men. It was clearly very well-intentioned and based on historical facts (Harold’s story begins during the historical 1967 Newark riots). Though, I can’t help but ask: if half of your script deals with very personal Black experiences with extreme racism, police brutality, and Black protests, and you have two writers, why wasn’t one of them, I don’t know, Black? David Chase clearly cared about having as many Italian-Americans as possible involved in making The Sopranos so as to properly tell an Italian-American story, so I can’t help but see this as a red flag.
So, was there anything redeeming about The Many Saints of Newark? Well, sure. As you can tell from this article, a lot of the flaws I point out are comparative to the original show. But it was somewhat entertaining, and I loved Michael Gandolfini’s performance, though I wish he was given a more interesting role. In fact, I thought the movie was really well cast and everyone brought their best, even if the overall story was subpar. Leslie Odom Jr. was especially a joy to watch; he made every other plot take a backseat to the story of Harold McBrayer, an especially impressive feat since he was playing a completely new character in the Sopranos universe.
None of these virtues, unfortunately, were able to save The Many Saints of Newark. It seems like the creators just bit off more than they could chew. They tried to balance three main plots—that of Tony, Dickie, and Harold—into one movie, while also trying to shove in as many call-backs as possible. It’s pretty clear that David Chase is an extremely talented writer with a grand legacy to preserve, so I doubt he was trying to write a subpar script and collect his check. But no matter how talented the writers are, when a story is overly ambitious, subtlety and nuance often need to be sacrificed; it’s much quicker to just tell us Tony is a genius leader in one scene than it is to show it over the course of many scenes. And so, in a failed attempt to fit in everything, it seems the writers had to resort to reducing characters to caricatures and “trimming the fat”—if one can call character development and complex storytelling “fat”—of the overall plot. And so, from day one of pre-production, one thing should have been clear: The Many Saints of Newark never had the makings of a good prequel movie.