So, before we get started, I guess it’s time to address the scowling, Italian-American elephant in the room – to date I have never seen an entire episode of The Sopranos…
I know, I know… how I haven’t managed to evade a genuine, cultural phenomenon that’s been consistently ranked as one of the greatest TV shows ever made is something even I’m not entirely sure of – and yet here we are: a review of Sopranos prequel The Many Saints Of Newark by someone who has never even seen the show it’s based on.
As I settled into my seat, I was understandably a little anxious, after all, was I going to understand any of what I was seeing and even if I did, would it have the appropriate impact without any proper knowledge of what chronologically comes next? Well, colour me surprised, because not only is The Many Saints Of Newark a damn good watch, it’s probably the most solid gangster movie I’ve seen in the last ten years.
In a tumultuous Newark in 1967, soldiers of the DiMeo crime family go about their usual business of shady crime shit as the city starts to come apart at the scenes due to the racially charged riots that are tearing through the city. Dickie Moltisanti is an important face around town, as is his fellow mobsters Johnny and Junior Soprano and growing up in this world is the smart, but impressionable Tony Soprano.
When Dickie’s father returns home with a glamorous new trophy wife, this sets off wide reaching string of events that resonate for years to come and when Tony’s brutish father, Johnny, is arrested and sent away for four years, the young kid’s adulation for his “uncle” Dickie only grows. Certainly not helping things is the weapons-grade scorn he gets from his mother, Livia and soon Tony is getting into trouble at school as he tries to emulate some of the various numbers rackets and scams his elders regularly perform on the streets in order to make quick money. However, on Dickie’s side of things, events have gotten a little extreme and after an altercation with his father over his young wife gets way out of hand, he finds himself with growing feelings for his “mother”. On top of this a previous lieutenant of his, a black man by the name of Howard, has been inspired by the riots to go into business for himself which will put him in direct competition with his former employer; a man who’s opinion of other cultures is hardly what you’d call enlightened.
Eventually four years pass and Johnny is released from jail, but the pressure is steadily rising for Dickie and he starts to realise that Tony’s hero worship of him may not exactly be the best for the kid in the long term…
So I’ll admit, there’s probably a lot of foreshadowing I missed that’ll no doubt make your average Sopranos nut lose their collective minds, but even without this knowledge of things preordained to pass, The Many Saints Of Newark still manages to hold the attention for the uninitiated.
Oh sure, some of it I totally got – the fact that an infant baby Christopher won’t stop crying whenever his future murderer Tony goes anywhere near him and the fact that Livia (here played by a magnificently disdainful Vera Farmiga) is a collossal c-word, were things I already knew by osmosis – but it wasn’t until I chatted to a fan afterwards and realised that somethings I merely considered twists were actually super twists, I realised I was was missing some important stuff.
However, sometimes there’s nothing better than settling down and watching a good, old fashion, slow-burn mafia flick, and David Chase’s quippy, layered brainchild turns out to be most certainly that.
The cast is, unsurprisingly, brilliant with Michael Gandolfini alarmingly being the utter ghost of his dear old dad as the young Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola holding court as the charismatic Dickie, but a main part of the richness of The Sopranos belongs to its memorable supporting characters and Ray Liotta, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stroll, Vera Farmiga (plus many more) continue the tradition of making these frequently horrendous people relatable and funny despite the chilling things they often do.
It’s also somewhat warming that frequent Sopranos and Game Of Thrones director Alan Taylor has finally ditched the blockbuster wasteland of Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys in favour of something more grounded and he weaves a subtle touch, even when the characters are doing some of those unsavory actions I was hinting about earlier (a harrowing beach encounter has a dreamy quality like something from the French New Wave). With that being said, while the film hasn’t exactly got the vivid energy of Goodfellas, the sheer weight of The Godfather or the enclosed tension of Donnie Brasco, it still does everything a good Mafia movie needs to do to get the job done (it even has an upsetting torture sequence involving car tools) and remember – I’m reviewing it without the sheer storytelling weight of the six seasons of the HBO show behind it, so you still might even wanna stick another star onto that rating. Capisce?
While some may be frustrated that we buzz through such a formative time of the childhood of TV’s most important gangster in just two hours, remember, this is more of a snap shot of his life before he ever takes up the mantle of head of a crime family and the movie is more about Dickie than it is Tony himself. However, I’m certain that after enjoying The Many Saints Of Newark despite being in a relative continuity bubble, the shameful, Sopranos-shaped hole in my life will soon be rectified with belated viewing of the show that put the boom into badda-boom….