Film review: ‘THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The Many Saints of Newark is writer/ producer David Chase’s eagerly anticipated feature-length prequel to one of the most lauded TV series in history, The Sopranos.  While the show’s contemporary The Wire was about sociology, The Sopranos was about psychology, its central motif was the therapy that mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) underwent with psychiatrist Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).  It’s appropriate, therefore, that a cinema adaptation of the Soprano’s should examine Tony’s past (his teen years from 1967 to 1971) and the forces that shaped his mentality and behaviour.  How well audiences will think this film explores that world will no doubt vary as fine filmmaking runs an even race with telemovie mediocrity here.

The transition from TV series to cinema feature can be a treacherous one.  Often, the qualities that defined the TV show and worked on the small screen, such as intimate character portrayals, exploration of the minutiae of everyday life and slowly building plots, can be lost on the big screen as filmmakers try to pack more action and unsatisfyingly neat story points and conclusions into the film.  With varying success, Many Saints attempts to address the dilemma of TV-to-movie adaptation by adopting a multi-stranded narrative that’s something of a compromise between a TV series and a movie story structure.

Set initially in 1967, the film sees America poised to explode.  While it’s nominally the Summer of Love, civil rights protests, racial and socio-economic inequality and opposition to the Vietnam War have turned the country into a powder keg.  This tension is particularly keen on the streets of New Jersey where Italians and African Americans live precariously side by side.  Amidst all this, DiMeo mafia family boss Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) father of Chris from The Sopranos, is increasingly battling threats from within and outside the family. African American associate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr) a former high school friend of Dickie’s, who enforces the family’s will in black communities, begins to resent his outsider status in the family and the subtly racist comments from its members.  Embracing the Black Panther Movement’s ethos, he violently challenges Dickie’s rule.  At the same time, Dickie has to contend with his flashy but boorish and abusive old school gangster father ‘Hollywood’ Dick Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) (one suspects the phallic references are no coincidence) who has just returned from Italy with a new, young and to his son, seductive wife (Michela De Rossi).  Watching from the sidelines, quietly hero-worshipping Dicky and trying to decide his path in life is a teenage Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini’s son Michael).

In terms of scope, intensity and cinematic artistry, Many Saints falls well short of the masterpieces of the mafia movie genre like Goodfellas and The Godfather and sits just below a film like A Bronx Tale.  Chase’s multi-character storyline holds together for the most part and for some will provide satisfying fan service in the way it sets up the events in the TV series.  Still, it often lacks focus, leapfrogging from one vignette to another and it never enthrals the way the TV series did.  The TV show dragged us into the dark whirlpool of Tony’s troubled mind but this film never establishes that powerful undercurrent.

One of the film’s biggest weaknesses is that Michael Gandolfini is underwhelming as the young Tony  although this is as much a scripting issue as anything to do with his performance.  He captures some of Tony’s oafish physicality and nuances like his slumping posture but he’s mostly just a goofy, long-haired teen.  The film doesn’t convincingly bridge the gap between that easy-going kid and the fascinatingly disturbed and complex character of Tony in the TV series.

With much of the focus on the character of Dickie, Alessandro Nivola not surprisingly delivers the most memorable performance here. Dickie, like Tony in the TV series is in many ways symbolic of America at the time, outwardly confident, powerful and materially successful but inwardly full of uncertainty and self-destructive rage.  Nivola’s sudden shifts from charming gent to violent monster are unnervingly convincing and the most striking aspects of the film.  His conflict with Harold (Odom Jr) lacks bite, though, as Harold disappears from the story for long periods.  When he appears, though, Odom Jr is, typically excellent in a role that deserved a bigger canvas.

As Tony’s notoriously caustic mother Livia, Vera Farmiga is impressive but not as disturbingly memorable as Nancy Marchand in the series.  In an amusing Freudian touch, though, she looks and sounds like Edie Falco’s Carmella Soprano, Tony’s wife in the TV series.

Unfortunately, the film has a few clumsy interpretations of some of the series’ other main characters as younger actors try to conjure 20-something versions of Silvio (John Magaro), Paulie (Billy Magnussen) and Pussy (Samson Moeakiola).  They tend to exaggerate their mannerisms and seem more like caricatures.  Corey Stoll, however, brings an appropriate mix of comic eagerness and vindictive bitterness to the character of Tony’s hapless uncle, Junior Soprano.

On a technical level the film’s period recreation is impeccable. Director Alan Taylor (Thor: Dark World, Game of Thrones) and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau effectively evoke the look of the late 60’s and early 70’s and make fine use of locations around New Jersey and New York.   There’s also potent use of music including Gill Scott Heron and Last Poets’ excoriating pre-rap takedowns of white supremacy in America and Scorsese-like use of rock classics, including the Stones.

Matching the quality and unique appeal of a ground-breaking show like The Sopranos was always going to be a monumental task and while The Many Saints of Newark captures some of the grim humour, confronting violence and family upheaval that typified the series, it never quite recreates the show’s dark magic.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Crime drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Alan Taylor.

Release date: 4th November 2021.

Running time: 122 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


Related Posts: