Film review: The Many Saints of Newark (2021), directed by Alan Taylor
tl;dr If everything needs to be a “cinematic universe” these days, one based on The Sopranos is more than fine by me.
When this first came out, I thought most of the criticism was that people were disappointed about a prequel to The Sopranos not strictly being a prequel to The Sopranos. People expected something like the Rise of Tony Soprano, and what they got was … not that. And it’s true, The Many Saints of Newark isn’t about Tony Soprano, but kind of in the same way that Citizen Kane isn’t about Rosebud. I mean, the name should be a clue: Many Saints, molti santi. It’s really about the Moltisantis of Newark.
The film starts in 1967 with Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), future father of The Sopranos‘ Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who is narrating the story as Chrissy), and a young Tony Soprano (William Ludwig) going to meet Dickie’s father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) fresh off the boat from Italy, where he’s spent some time for unspecified reasons. He has brought with him a stunning young wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi).
Hollywood Dick is a soldier in the DiMeo crime family, along with some familiar – if decades younger – faces: Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll), Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), and Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola). Along with them, Tony’s dad Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) and Buddha (Joey Coco Diaz).
Unlike in The Sopranos, Many Saints also features race riots and a black associate, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), but it felt as if his character was never fully explained. I wasn’t sure if he was a member of a different/rival gang to the DiMeos, or if he was a part of the DiMeos, but he’s down as an associate of Dickie’s on Wikipedia. Perhaps if they had showed more of his side of the plot, that would have helped clarify things?
Other things to recognise for anyone who has seen The Sopranos include the scene where Johnny Soprano is taken by the police, and Tony’s mum Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga), who was about as charming as dental surgery back in the day as well, so clearly nothing’s changed there. Uncle Jun’s pettiness was clearly not a recent development either. These are things that are nice to see and reconnect with when you’ve seen The Sopranos. I like how the DiMeo gang are instantly recognisable from their mannerisms. It’s a big task to play iconic characters who were established over the better part of a decade and stepping into their shoes – and doing it well. It’s a shame we don’t see more of them, but as the film centres on Dickie Moltisanti that’s to be expected. Yes, Tony Soprano is there, but he isn’t the plot focus. It’s really nice to see Michael Gandolfini (son of the late James) as a teenaged Tony, by the way. Perfect choice.
In part it really is a Tony Soprano origin story, because you see his entrepreneurial spirit in school, and the things that he ends up talking about with Dr Melfi in the future, like playing high school football and so on. He even wants to get his mother some medication to help, which she flat out refuses because she’s … well, still an awful person. Most of the people around Tony are awful people. It’s almost funny how there are very few characters you feel any sympathy for in this film, but I guess that’s part of what makes it fun to watch.
The sadly recently late Ray Liotta gets to play two characters in the same film. I like that. He also plays Hollywood Dick’s twin brother, Salvatore, or “Sally”, who’s serving time in prison for murder. Dickie starts going to visit him, and Sally actually seems to be the more reasonable of the twin brothers.
The best part of this film? The ending. Not because the film ends, but how it ends. That music coming in at that point, it gives me goosebumps. I may have even gasped the first time I heard it. It’s magnificent. As a sort of love letter to the world of The Sopranos, I enjoyed it very much. It does have some flaws – for instance, trying to explain the plot (above) proved surprisingly difficult – so when I started off by talking about Citizen Kane, I didn’t mean it as saying The Mainy Saints of Newark will go down in cinematic history as one of the greatest films ever made, because it’s not exactly groundbreaking. But I enjoy seeing the characters I’ve recently re-acquainted myself with in the context of their past, and they are some fantastic characters still.
4.7 out of 5 hair salons.