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22 September 2021updated 23 Sep 2021 10:58am

The Many Saints of Newark: an origin story for an anti-hero

David Chase’s The Sopranos spin-off takes the story back in time. Call it Tony Soprano’s Hannibal Rising.

By David Sexton

Back we go. The Sopranos ran for six seasons, from 1999 to 2007, 86 episodes altogether, before the extended last season ended with the screen suddenly blacking out, leaving it unclear as to whether or not Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) had at last been whacked.

James Gandolfini died suddenly of a heart attack, on a hot day in Rome, in June 2013, aged just 51, discovered on the floor of a hotel bathroom by his 14-year-old son, Michael. So there was no taking Tony’s story forwards, or sideways. Instead, the show’s creator, David Chase, as writer and producer, working with Alan Taylor (who directed nine episodes of the original), has, after all these years, come up with this prequel – call it Tony Soprano’s Hannibal Rising.

The Many Saints of Newark is set way back in urban Newark at the time of the riots there in 1967, when Tony is an 11-year-old boy. It then progresses to his adolescence, in 1971, when his family has moved out to the suburbs. He is played in his youngest years by William Ludwig, and as a teenager by Gandolfini’s son, Michael, long-haired and baby-faced. This is poignant, high-stakes casting by Chase.

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Unexpectedly, the introductory voice-over, from beyond the grave – from hell, in fact – comes from Christopher Moltisanti, bitterly recalling that his Uncle Tony choked him to death (in season six). And then we launch into the historical story of the Moltisanti (which translates as “many saints”) family, focusing particularly on Christopher’s father, Dickie Moltisanti – a smart choice since he was never actually seen in the HBO series. He’s played here by imperious Alessandro Nivola in one of the two standout performances in the movie – the other being Vera Farmiga’s blazing take, despite a prosthetic schnozz, on the young Livia, Tony’s monstrous mother.

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As the film opens, Dickie’s own elderly father, “Hollywood Dickie” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), triumphantly brings back a stunning second bride from Italy, Guiseppina, “Miss Provolone 1967” (Michela De Rossi). She is absolutely delighted to learn the word “motherfucker”. Family tensions – extremely violent family tensions – ensue, young Dickie both fancying his new stepmother and not having forgiven his father’s brutish behaviour to his first wife. Greek tragedy, if I remember rightly, involves much killing within the family and we get plenty of that here too – but perhaps the similarity ends there?

Meanwhile, with the film being structured in the loosely associative way of the series, there’s a vicious war happening out on the street, as the mob’s previously obliging associate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr) has been inspired by Black Power militancy to strike out on his own as a criminal, running numbers. This is not, perhaps, the ideal expression of civic independence, but what are you going to do?

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While Tony’s father Johnny (Jon Bernthal) is away in prison, it’s young Dickie who has most influence over him, for good or ill. Dickie keeps visiting his lifer uncle in jail and insisting he wants to do good, almost therapy-style – but he gets short shrift from this stone-faced guru. “What do I know? I’m a murderer.”

Still, young Tony doesn’t do anything very bad here. He and his friends steal an ice-cream van to hand out treats free to the kids in the park and he cheats on his geometry exam. Throwing out some stolen speakers, he tells his uncomprehending father “I don’t want any part of this!”, remaining so guiltless that the door is left open for a prequel sequel, to show how he did eventually go over to the dark side.

The decision to cast Michael Gandolfini is just about justified: if he doesn’t have quite his father’s devilish charm or inner scariness, he captures Tony’s innocence at this age – and there are family resemblances. And, after all, this is a button-pushing movie, effectively one giant Easter egg packed with lots of little ones. All the characters are recast and prefigured here, whether they really needed to be or not: Paulie, Pussy, Silvio, Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll, a ringer for the young Philip Larkin, and as touchy and vindictive as ever). A briefly glimpsed, haughty, blonde teenager is named as Carmela, even.

David Chase nevertheless maintains that it’s “very much a standalone movie” and that you don’t need to have seen The Sopranos to enjoy it. True up to a point – but you’d miss so much and be hopelessly confused. The whole purpose of this film is to play on the deep investment so many people have in this fictional world in their own lives. For some, such memories matter almost as much as those that are personal.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is in cinemas now

This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play