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The Ghosts of ‘The Sopranos’ Loom Over ‘The Many Saints of Newark’

At its best, the prequel centers on a young Tony Soprano and his uncle Dickie Moltisanti enhances the overall story. At its worst, it comes off like little more than a nostalgia play.

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Spoiler warning

The Many Saints of Newark opens with a choice that would’ve felt out of place in any episode of The Sopranos: voice-over narration from a long-dead character. The camera pans through a cemetery, and as it passes each grave, voices from the beyond pile atop one another to create a cacophony of noise. The frame ultimately lands on a tombstone with a name that viewers of the famed HBO series will recognize: Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s nephew and protégé who died at the hand of his uncle late in the show’s run. Reprising the role, actor Michael Imperioli’s voice immediately yanks viewers back into this world. “After he murdered me, Tony gave my wife and infant daughter his pocket change,” he says. “But that was much later.” In other words: This story will be familiar, but it won’t be what we’re used to.

Many Saints, the prequel film cowritten by Sopranos creator David Chase and directed by series veteran Alan Taylor, arrives in theaters and on HBO Max in a much different world than the one Tony and Co. left in June 2007 under famously ambiguous circumstances. The show, one of the most acclaimed in TV history, is arguably more popular than it’s ever been thanks to memes, conventions, podcasts, a fresh set of first-time viewers amid the pandemic, and younger generations who identify with its pitch-black humor and end-of-the-American-empire vibes. At the same time, any return to North Jersey has seemed nearly impossible for years given the 2013 death of James Gandolfini, the actor who played the famed antihero at the show’s center. Add in Chase’s longtime reluctance to revisit his greatest creation and the fact that prequels typically don’t work, and it seemed you would’ve had a better chance winning at the executive game than betting that another Sopranos story would make it to the screen, no matter how millennials shitposted about it. But as it turns out, a few things gnawed at Chase: As he told Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall, he’s been interested for years in capturing the era when Tony’s father and Uncle Junior ran Newark, something The Sopranos had shown only in brief flashbacks. And one never-seen character who loomed large over The Sopranos appealed to him—Dickie Moltisanti, the father of Christopher and mentor to Tony who was killed decades before the events of the series but was mentioned throughout. “I had interest in him as a character, Christopher’s father, the whole story,” Chase told RS. “That Christopher had a father.”

The Many Saints of Newark is the end result of that interest. Despite what the trailers and casting of Gandolfini’s son, Michael, as young Tony might indicate, the film is a Moltisanti family affair—the last name is Italian for “many saints”—and Dickie, played with a suave confidence by Alessandro Nivola, is the centerpiece of the film. He’s a window into the New Jersey mob of the 1960s and ’70s—a world where tracksuits don’t exist and the gangsters drive De Villes instead of Escalades, and an era that feels far from Tony Soprano’s new-money suburban hell. But despite the superficial differences, Dickie deeply resembles the Tony we came to know through six seasons: He’s undeniably charismatic, loved by many, yet also a bottomless pit searching for a fill, capable of imposing great violence on the people closest to him.

Being able to see the grown-up Tony in Dickie isn’t an accident: At its best, Many Saints pulls at the thematic threads it shares with The Sopranos. Intrafamily violence and generational trauma haunt this world as much as those spirits haunt that graveyard. Like Tony, Dickie lives under the thumb of a larger-than-life parent—here it’s his gangster father, Hollywood Dick. After a pivotal moment between them, Dickie seeks the guidance of a wise outsider. (His Dr. Melfi stand-in is his long-imprisoned Uncle Sally.) Dickie also considers himself better than his wife-abusing dad, but soon learns he can be just as reprehensible, a fact made all the more gutting considering his son would ultimately inherit his worst traits. And when Tony’s intelligence, personality, and leadership potential are on the verge of being snuffed out by his dysfunctional home life, Dickie is positioned as the only one who can save the teen’s soul; it doesn’t work, just as Tony’s presence in Christopher’s life wouldn’t help the younger Moltisanti years later. Everything in this cinematic universe is cyclical, and when Chase et al. manage to connect back to The Sopranos in a way that complements the overarching story, it enriches both the film and the show.

What Many Saints can’t do, however, is evoke the feeling of even an average hour of The Sopranos. That may be an impossible demand for a movie based on a revolutionary show that ended 14 years ago, but it’s one that many viewers will have. Much of the series’ appeal was its pacing, as Chase and his team of writers spent 86 hours and six seasons plumbing the depths of Tony’s psyche and developing rich secondary and tertiary characters. Here, Chase and cowriter Lawrence Konner have two hours to stuff a scattershot plot that covers five years and grapples with Dickie’s increasingly bleak world, the miseducation of Tony Soprano, the Newark race riots of 1967, and a Black associate of Dickie’s (Harold, played by Leslie Odom Jr.) who tries to step out on his own. (Given The Sopranos’ troubles tackling issues of race during its run, a relatively fleshed-out story line featuring Black characters marks progress, even if the film doesn’t know fully what to do with it.) With the need to fit in all that plot, the Sopranos’ trademark humor and insight into humanity comes only in all small doses, like when Livia (Vera Farmiga) says of Johnny Boy’s mustache that “His goomar told him it makes him look like Robert Goulet” as she ashes a cigarette over a baby Barbara. These small asides make you remember what made this world so addictive in the first place, but they come sparingly.

In the absence of those Sopranos hallmarks, Many Saints offers Easter eggs and fan service, a somewhat surprising development given Chase’s repeated refusal to give viewers what they wanted. (That said, you still won’t find out what happened to the Russian.) Some of the nods to the canonical text feel forced, like when Junior (played by a stellar Corey Stoll) drops a “never had the makings of a varsity athlete” reference early in the second act. Others are more rewarding, like the revelation of who was really behind the hit on Dickie. (Turns out Dickie was indeed carrying TV trays.) And some are welcome comic relief—everyone knew Silvio wore a wig, so why not have fun with it? These moments feel antithetical to the series Chase created, but in Many Saints they’re necessary comfort food.

To that end, many of the beloved characters from the series appear in the film, in roles both big and small. The most high-profile casting decision—putting Michael Gandolfini in Tony’s letterman jacket—reaps the most dividends. Young Tony doesn’t factor into the plot as much as the tagline “Who made Tony Soprano?” would indicate, but Many Saints offers a glimpse into a more innocent time in his life, when he had dreams of making the NFL and just wanted to score a six-pack of beer. Gandolfini has the seemingly hopeless task of stepping into his father’s most iconic role, but he acquits himself nicely, playing Tony with equal parts mischievousness and melancholy while capturing the character’s mannerisms and flights of rage. (In one late-movie moment, he hurls a pair of speakers from his bedroom window while shouting “I don’t want any part of this.”) It’s perhaps no coincidence that his strongest moments come opposite Farmiga, who turns in the film’s best performance as Livia Soprano. She plays the Soprano family matriarch with such pathos that it turns one of the most terrifying creatures to ever appear on the small screen into a sympathetic figure—Tony always said Livia wore Johnny “down to a little nub,” but in Many Saints, the inverse appears to be true, as her husband’s lifestyle and emotional abuse turn her skittish and paranoid.

Further down the credits, the results are mixed. Stoll’s performance as Junior Soprano adds layers to the character, and Billy Magnussen honors Paulie Gualtieri in limited screen time without veering into caricature. But others play like impersonations: John Magaro’s Silvio feels as though he’s stumbled in from an SNL sketch, and little Big Pussy is a nonentity who gets only one big punch line. But the gang’s all here, even if the likes of Carmela and Artie Bucco make merely blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances.

Many Saints can at times seem purely like a nostalgia play, but depending on expectations, that mostly works. What may not work for fans—particularly those who would never skip the Mefli scenes—is the movie’s ending. In a callback to an earlier scene, when Tony pinky-swears to Dickie that he’ll do better after he’s expelled from school, Tony stands over his slain mentor’s casket. Suddenly, Dickie’s hand lunges upward and the two lock pinkies as the opening bars of “Woke Up This Morning” fade in. It’s clearly (hopefully) just a figment of Tony’s imagination, but it’s about as far from the Holsten’s cut-to-black as you can imagine, and feels contrived in a way the series rarely did—a Hollywood ending for a story that always shunned them.

One of the most sage lines ever spoken on The Sopranos came from the mouth of one of its least reliable narrators: “The dead have nothing to say to us,” Janice tells a mourning Bobby Baccalieri in Season 4. “It’s our own narcissism that makes us think they even care.” And while that may be true, ghosts made a lot of noise on the show—whether it was deposed foes appearing in dream sequences or children falling into the same patterns of trauma as their parents. In The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase gives a true voice to the dead for the first time. It turns out they only occasionally have interesting things to say, but after so many years spent away from this world, simply hearing those voices is enough.