To prepare for seeing “The Many Saints of Newark,” I went back to look at a few episodes of “The Sopranos,” David Chase’s groundbreaking HBO series about the world of a New Jersey mob boss. To me, it’s still the greatest show ever made for television. So the prospect of Chase delivering a long-delayed origin story was indeed tantalizing. Fourteen years after the TV screen literally went black on Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), Chase has brought him back to life—sort of—in a theatrical movie (more about this later) tracing Tony’s youth and the influences that created the monster he became.
But this is not just Tony’s story; it’s something bigger. “Saints” is about the societal and familial forces that forged Tony’s character. Just as “The Sopranos” captured the aimless affluence and rampant crime of the ’90s, “Saints” reflects the turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Much of the film is spent recreating the Newark race riots of 1967. Staged with precision by director Alan Taylor and production designer Bob Shaw, both ”Sopranos” vets, the violence and chaos of battered buildings, looted stores, and fallen bodies seem both historical and contemporary. You can almost smell the smoke rising above the rubble.
“Saints” follows several storylines, but in the center is the relationship between Tony and his mentor Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), alluded to in the HBO series as Christopher’s long-deceased father.
To play the teenage Tony, Chase has come up with a bold move. He cast the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, to play the character his father had made famous. There is an element of art imitating life as Michael embodies Tony more than any other actor possibly could. At times, the physical resemblance and body language deepen the performance; at other times the resemblance is so spot-on that it becomes eerily distracting. One can only imagine the psychological burden of playing your father (Gandolfini died at 51 of a heart attack), but that probably adds to the vulnerability of the character.
As a kid in 1967 (played by William Ludwig) and then as a teenager in 1971, Tony is sensitive, curious and intelligent, but confused. Since his father Johnnie (Jon Bernthal), a midlevel gangster and indifferent parent, is in and out of jail, and his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga, stunning in channeling the character created by Nancy Marchand) is too mentally ill to give him any emotional support, Tony looks to Dickie as his role model. Known in the neighborhood as “Gentleman Dick,” he is, as Tony will later become, a conflicted mobster, given to bouts of conscience and regret. From Dickie, Tony picks up useful skills like how to run a numbers racket in his Catholic high school and how to fence stolen goods. But at the same time, he also tries to steer Tony away from going into the family business.
At this point, Tony is more of an observer of the violence going on around him, as if he were watching a movie of his life unspooling. He knows it’s the summer of love, but that’s not what he sees in Newark. He vaguely wants to go to college and is trying to figure out where his life is going. Unfortunately for him, we already know the answer, and when we catch a glimpse of the young Carmela, his long-suffering wife-to-be on the HBO series (immortalized by Edie Falco), wearing his varsity jacket, we know where her life is headed, too. Eventually, they do make a choice, and as Chase has said, “it wasn’t to become missionaries in Africa or do anything like that. They took the midnight train….”
Much of the action revolves around the immigrant experience and making it in America, touching on class, wealth, economic opportunities, religion, sex—all power points under siege. Some critics have complained that there isn’t enough Tony in the film, but that misses the point, I think. The tension is building up for Tony on the inside and the outside.
In Tony’s external world, members of the Black Saints Gang have been stealing from Dickie and have to be put in their place, administered by Dickie’s flunky Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). Having once been there themselves, Italian-Americans want to keep Blacks on the lowest rungs of society. It’s no wonder they’re rebelling.
In this environment, crime is about the only thing that pays for the have-nots, and everyone is on the make. “Saints,” even more than “The Sopranos,” plays like a Bruce Springsteen song, populated by small-time Jersey crooks looking for a big score and people just trying to get a handle on their lives and navigate the roadblocks at every turn.
Consequently, with all the individual stories going on, the film may not have the narrative drive or dramatic impact of an escalating movie plot. The script by Chase and another “Sopranos” hand, Lawrence Konner, sometimes feels more like episodic TV than a film. And, as in the series, Chase uses music as well as anyone to create that pacing and set up or payoff a scene. Rock ’n’ roll has always been central to Chase’s vision of America, its promises and failures. He was a drummer in high school and wanted to be a rock star, so when young Tony is listening to “Never in my Life” by Mountain in his bedroom on gigantic stolen speakers, it is clearly a blast lifted from Chase’s past.
In a respite from the brutality, music also forms the backbone of a heartbreakingly lovely scene. Dickie and his girlfriend (Michela De Rossi) are driving in a Chevy convertible on a winter’s day by the Jersey shore with Van Morrison singing, “To be born again/In another world/…In another time.” One wonders what might have been different for these damaged souls, the Saints of Newark, in another time and place. And then, boom, an eruption of violence in the next scene brings it all back home.
Chase had always intended for “Saints” to be seen in theaters on a big screen, and was very upset when Warner Bros released the picture in theaters and on HBO at the same time. As much as he wanted the film to have a life beyond the living room, the story and history of “The Sopranos,” past and present, may now reside in the intimacy of small spaces and dark corners of our mind.
That’s not to say “Saints” doesn’t stand on its own as a movie experience or that it’s just a spinoff of the original, but one of the undeniable pleasures of watching “Saints” is connecting the dots from the series back to where it all began. For instance, it’s great fun to see what Silvio Dante (originally played by Steven Van Zant) or Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) looked like as young men just starting out on their life of crime, or spotting Holstein’s ice cream parlor and remembering it as the location of what was most likely Tony’s last supper.
As much as Dickie may have been his ticket out of the neighborhood and the mafia life, when he departs Tony’s fate is sealed. With the crackling of “The Sopranos” theme song over the end credits, “Woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun,” there is no doubt that the Tony Soprano we know and love to hate has arrived.