Movie Review: The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

TL;DR – Prequel story to the HBO crime drama “The Sopranos” following a young Tony Soprano and his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti during the 1967 Newark riots. Enjoyable for fans of the highly successful TV series.

Review (warning: spoilers)

From 1999 to 2007, viewers were gifted with one of the greatest TV series to hit our screens. The Sopranos followed the tumultuous life of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), father and head of a New Jersey-based Italian mafia. Gandolfini’s iconic role was so convincing, I believed that the actor had mafia ties. The HBO produced series was nominated and won so many awards that the list takes up its own Wikipedia page. From the cast, to the direction, to the camera work, to the costume design, to sound and music composition, The Sopranos set a platinum standard when it came to TV entertainment and demonstrated that small screen “cinema” could be as gripping, engaging and thoroughly engrossing as a feature length film on the big screen. But The Sopranos would be nothing without a story created and written (primarily) by David Chase. It is the writing that elevates The Sopranos into legendary status among the upper echelon of great TV drama.

Having watched all six seasons of The Sopranos, I almost fell off my chair when I read that David Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner had penned a screenplay about a prequel. Directed by Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark focuses on a young Tony Soprano’s childhood against the backdrop of the 1967 Newark riots that were sparked when a black taxi driver was arrested, beaten and killed by white police officers.

Played initially by William Ludwig and later by Michael Gandolfini, a young Tony Soprano tries to navigate his childhood and teenage years surrounded by a father, Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), uncle Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll) and the rest of the DiMeo mafia family all involved in criminal activity. However, it is his mentor, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), that he has the greatest respect and admiration, and the story primarily follows the pair.

The story shows that Tony never really stood a chance at choosing a life on the straight and narrow. At key points, Dickie attempts to get Tony to follow the rules and not get swallowed into a life with the mafia. But the things that Tony witnesses and the bond that comes being part of the mobster family burn indelible images into his brain and you know it is only a matter of time before Tony wants to learn the ropes to the “family” business.

By contrast, we follow Dickie and the life of a mobster and all the highs and lows that such a life entails. Dicke’s life reflects and prophesies what Tony’s life will be when we watch him in The Sopranos TV series. Dickie’s actions result in profound consequences that impact his conscience. Yes, he’s a mobster and thus you would think that his conscience would have been long ago seared to the point of no return, but there lies the complexity and horrifying beauty of the story. It is the fact that somewhere deep down (likely buried six feet under) is a piece of Dickie’s soul that still feels guilt and knows right from wrong. This manifests itself when he visits his uncle Sally (Ray Liotta) in prison. Sally also happens to be identical twins with Dickie’s father, and did I mention earlier in the film, Dickie kills his father? I didn’t? Well, this review did say spoilers.

Sally is the ‘therapist’ to Dickie’s conscience and is prophetic in nature because Sally comes to realise the blood on Dickie’s hands and tells him that he needs to stay out of Tony’s life (lest Tony gets sucked into a life of crime also). It is not coincidence that the first episode of The Sopranos has Tony talking to a psychiatrist.

These linkages are key to truly appreciating The Many Saints of Newark. Thus, if you haven’t watched the TV series, you will likely miss out on many of the connections with the prequel. The fun is in identifying all the characters in the prequel with those in the TV series and getting a glimpse into how they become who they become.

The final scene where Tony is at Dickie’s wake (yes, another spoiler, Dickie does not make it out alive in this film) and the camera focuses on young Tony, you can see in his eyes that his destiny is now set. This is confirmed when the song – “Woke up this morning” by Alabama 3 – starts playing. This song is as iconic as Tony because it is the opening credits song to The Sopranos. I honestly got goose bumps when that deep baritone voice and drum beat started playing.

8 out of 10

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