Every prequel is really a sequel — and that’s especially true of The Many Saints of Newark, a movie advertised as “A Sopranos Story.” The film, releasing simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the same world as The Sopranos, the groundbreaking television drama that helped turn HBO into a strong cultural force. The film takes place decades before The Sopranos, but it likely wouldn’t have existed without the TV series. And while its story stands alone, it’s primarily aimed at the show’s fans, rehashing the ideas and themes that writer-producer David Chase explored over the course of six seasons. It’s as much an epilogue to the show as a prologue.
So whether Many Saints works as a movie will likely depend on viewers’ level of investment in The Sopranos. It’s a polished, entertaining film, but a lot of its meaning derives from how much the audience cares about a handful of TV characters they may or may not already know.
For those who’ve never seen an episode of the show, The Many Saints of Newark will likely seem overstuffed and oddly unfocused, telling a story mostly about one of the non-Sopranos characters: Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a charismatic New Jersey mobster trying to escape the shadow of his domineering father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta). Over the course of the movie, Dickie is torn between the demands of his passionate love affair with an Italian immigrant named Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), and his other responsibilities, primarily to his organized crime family and his actual family, which includes a newborn son.
In The Sopranos, Dickie is a distant legend, remembered as the long-dead father of the next-generation hoodlum Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli, who also narrates this film) and a hero to his nephew Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who becomes Christopher’s boss and mentor. The Many Saints of Newark shows Dickie helping Tony (Michael Gandolfini, James’ son), but it’s more about Dickie striving to be a better person than the crooks who came before him. As part of that effort, he works closely with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a Black gangster whom his more bigoted Italian-American colleagues deeply distrust.
Roughly the first half of the film is set in 1967, and focuses heavily on the relationship between these two men, spending a lot of time with Harold as he weighs the possibility of breaking away from the Italians and running his own crew. Chase (who co-wrote the script with Lawrence Konner) and director Alan Taylor contrast the conservative culture of the old Mafia soldiers, who still wear suits and listen to Frank Sinatra, with the changing culture around them, where acid rock and political radicalism has already taken root. The tensions boil over in the 1967 Newark race riots, which ultimately break the bond between Harold and Dickie.
Chase has said that the origins of The Many Saints of Newark predate The Sopranos, and that he had long wanted to make a movie set against the backdrop of the Newark riots. He eventually folded that idea into a Sopranos project, once he became comfortable with the notion of revisiting those characters — and the notion that a Sopranos prequel would be easier to sell than an entirely original historical drama.
But in Many Saints’ second half, set around 1972, the themes of racial tension and social change start to fade, as Chase and company give more screen time to the teenage Tony, his abrasive mother Livia (Vera Farmiga), and his brutish father Johnny (Jon Bernthal). This is where any newcomers to The Sopranos might start getting confused, as Harold becomes a more minor character, and the story shifts to the relationship between Dickie and Tony. By the end, this is more of a proper prequel, explaining how Tony Soprano became the anxiety-plagued, nostalgia-prone mafioso he is on TV.
To that end, Chase provides plenty of Sopranos fan service. The younger versions of most of the show’s major characters appear, played by actors essentially imitating the originals. (Most successful: Corey Stoll as Junior Soprano, capturing the essence of Dominic Chianese’s Junior performance, playing a man who manipulates people from the sidelines by constantly complaining.) The movie is also littered with Sopranos Easter eggs, most notably in the choice of New Jersey locations, many of which are incredibly important on the TV series.
Really, The Many Saints of Newark is more like two Sopranos flashback episodes yoked together than it is a proper motion picture. But what ultimately matters most is that they’re good flashback episodes.
Chase’s time away from this franchise hasn’t dulled his ability to write snappy dialogue for these mobsters and their families, nor has it sapped his grasp of fine detail. This film is filled with quirky, Sopranos-esque moments, like one criminal giving another a stolen TV to pay off a $300 debt, or Dickie casually telling Tony that he didn’t know that Jews were around in the Middle Ages, and Tony replying, “Well… the Bible…”
And while Chase doesn’t do proper justice to the Newark race-relations story he may have initially set out to tell, he and Konner and Taylor do a remarkable job of cutting to the heart of one of The Sopranos’ main themes: the sense that a golden age has passed. There are two major recurring motifs in The Many Saints of Newark: big Italian feasts, where old friends gather around delicious-looking platters of food, and funerals, where those same friends say goodbye to the people who paid for those dishes.
The movie’s initial contrast is between Dickie, mired in a mob tradition he finds exhausting, and Harold, who thinks more freely. Later, the contrast is between Tony, who sees his uncle as a magic man who can get him anything he wants, and Dickie, who pays a price for that power. Throughout, The Many Saints of Newark is very clear about what this life actually costs.
In his 1995 essay-film A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, Scorsese talks about the concept of the old Hollywood studio filmmakers doing a little “smuggling” in their work: artists like Jacques Tourneur, Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann and Douglas Sirk, who delivered well-crafted, audience-friendly genre films that also featured some sly commentary on human nature, social order, and American materialism.
It may be a reach to call Chase a smuggler, given that The Sopranos was always a richly thematic show, open about its more literary and cinematic pretensions. But with The Many Saints of Newark, he does take something he knew the people wanted — more Sopranos — and uses it as an excuse to roam through his own memories and preoccupations. The results may not completely satisfy Sopranos fans, or non-fans, albeit for different reasons. But even in its lumpiness and incompleteness, the film feels alive.
The Many Saints of Newark is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.