The Sopranos was never really crying out for a prequel, but as prequels go, The Many Saints of Newark is better than most. While it’s inessential and a bit of an expansive footnote, it contains plenty of well-judged moments for fans and never does anything to harm the legacy of one of TVs greatest shows.
Taking place in 1960s and ’70s Newark, it centres on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of The Sopranos’s Christopher. Dickie is part of a growing crime family, headed by his dad, the charismatic monster Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ (Ray Liotta). Dickie operates with a softer approach than his father. He’s firm but reasonable and shows kindness to those close to him, particularly his young ‘nephew’ Tony. As his power increases, however, Dickie’s soul blackens. For Tony, the man who was once a moral guide starts to become a lesson in how to command respect through fear.
For Sopranos fans, The Many Saints of Newark provides lots of satisfying backstory and character detail. The show’s creator David Chase, co-writing here with Lawrence Konner, who wrote three episodes of the show, is far too smart to throw around big twists for the sake of it. Instead, he weaves in moments that deepen existing characters but don’t dramatically change them.
There are hints of how Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga, as wildly dramatic as you’d hope) became such a horrible, manipulative mother; there’s a fun evolution for Silvio’s toupee; and there are several moments that cast Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll) in a new, almost sympathetic light. Michael Gandolfini, son of James Gandolfini, takes on a titanic task playing his father’s defining role. He does him proud, with mannerisms that mirror his dad’s but a performance that’s far more than imitation. His teen outbursts really look like they could thicken into Tony’s murderous rages.
For those who’ve never seen The Sopranos, or don’t remember it vividly, this may leave you feeling a little adrift. There is a dense, potentially very rich story here, but a two-hour movie gives it too little space to unfold. Introducing many new characters, and giving time to known ones, makes for broad-strokes storytelling and leaves the plot driving the characterisations, rather than the other way around. The background of racial tension in ’60s America and a broken friendship between Dickie and old partner Harry (Leslie Odom Jr) offer so much potential but little substance. A solid film, this feels like it would have made a much better TV series.
In UK cinemas Sep 22 and US theaters Oct 1.