*. The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to the popular HBO series The Sopranos, telling the story of Tony Soprano growing up as a mob brat in Newark, New Jersey. Except teenage Tony, played by James Gandolfini’s son Michael, is only a minor character in an ensemble cast. The tag line asked “Who Made Tony Soprano” but that rarely feels like a question that’s in play. Indeed, I was about halfway through the movie before I started wondering what I would say if someone asked me what this movie was “about” beyond saying that it’s a prequel to The Sopranos.
*. This is a movie built more around characters and incidents than plot. I guess a lot of things happen, meaning various people get killed in odd and violent ways, but it’s hard to see them as being particularly significant or consequential. Unlike in the series, where the big death scenes were all memorable because they involve characters we’d gotten to know and care about. Here every whack only gives rise to a shrug.
*. In the renaissance or second golden age of television that took place over the last twenty years The Sopranos stands out not just as the godfather and trendsetter but I think still the greatest achievement. It was a show remarkable for its quality, especially in terms of the writing and acting. But this movie is no Sopranos, despite being, I think to its detriment, a work in the same mold.
*. I don’t mean that as a knock, but it does suggest how the origins of The Many Saints of Newark shaped the kind of a movie it is. In the past, when we spoke of a movie being a small-screen experience it was meant to diminish it, television being a ghetto for C-list stars and low production values. In the twenty-first century, however, the cable series became home to the best writing in the business, and drama where the actors weren’t just stars running around in capes and tights. In other words, if you were really interested in film at this time you were just as interested if not more in what was happening on the small screen than at the cineplex.
*. That said, there are problems with taking the same approach to the big-screen format. A cable series has the time to develop character and narrative at a pace and with a depth that a 90 or 120-minute film just can’t. The plot, such as it is, is here compressed to the point of absurdity and incoherence. Sure there’s tension between Dickie and Junior, but enough for Junior to put out a hit on him? That seemed incredible to me, as did the idea that Dickie’s main squeeze would be not just sleeping around on him, but hopping into bed with his main rival, who also happens to be a Black man (this in 1972). The only reason for this is to give Dickie a reason to kill her in a dramatic scene at the beach. In the series, when Adriana or Christopher Moltisanti got killed it came as shock but both deaths were perfectly prepared for. Here the murders of Giuseppina and Dickie are just dropped on us.
*. Put another way, this is a movie that feels like an episode, or a pilot to a spin-off series, rather than a stand-alone film. As such it has all the strengths of TV — and it’s directed by Alan Taylor, a fellow who has a standout list of cable credits but not many quality features to his name — but all of the weaknesses as well. Even the ending, with its mid-credit sequence, teases a sequel. Just as the most successful model for filmmaking at this time became the creation of franchises, what seems to be getting established here is a multi-platform Sopranos “universe.”
*. You’ll have guessed I was disappointed by The Many Saints of Newark, no doubt in part because of how much I loved the show. For movies making the same jump I’d certainly rate it higher than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but below El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie. And El Camino wasn’t great.
*. There just isn’t enough room here to develop any of the characters or for any interesting plot lines to develop. I also thought the cast a big letdown. Alessandro Nivola and Michela De Rossi are bland as the leads. Jon Berthal as Tony’s dad is just a brute, and a minor part anyway. Michael Gandolfini has an uncanny resemblance to his dad, but doesn’t carry any of the sense of budding cunning and danger that the character needs. Vera Formiga makes the redoubtable Livia into a more passive figure. Again: in a series, minor characters in an ensemble have a chance to grow and be developed. Here they remain sketches. Ray Liotta’s jazz-loving and Buddhism-curious inmate is just one such character who might have turned into something interesting over the course of a couple of seasons. But here he’s just a spot of colour, while Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer only remains “someone to keep an eye on.”
*. So instead of a tight plot there’s a string of what feel like random episodes that don’t add up to much of anything. Young Tony steals an ice cream truck. A rival gang member is tortured by having an impact wrench stuffed in his mouth. As it dragged on I kept looking forward to hearing “Woke Up This Morning,” which I knew was going to come right at the end. When it finally played I was all smiles, in part because it was so familiar and because it was something they couldn’t mess up, but maybe even more because I knew the movie was over. At least for now. There was poor box office but it did well streaming so it’s likely there will be a second part, and maybe even more, to come.