The irony of Sopranos creator David Chase is that for all he seems to mythologize movies, long considering television the “inferior medium” (to the point that he originally envisioned The Sopranos as a film), even when he gets the chance to write a film, he can’t help but write a TV show. It was true in Not Fade Away, his 2013 directorial debut starring James Gandolfini, and it’s true in The Many Saints Of Newark, co-written by Chase and Lawrence Conner, directed by Alan Taylor and starring James Gandolfini’s son, Michael.
How successful it is depends somewhat on the context in which you evaluate it. It offers compelling scenes and leaves us wanting more, but it doesn’t answer many questions. Which raises the question of what it’s meant to be: a final chapter, or the first chapter of something new?
The posters for Many Saints scream “WHO MADE TONY SOPRANO,” a question Many Saints not only doesn’t answer but doesn’t even seem all that interested in answering. But I’m not here to review the marketing, in some ways the best thing a movie ad can do is get you into a theater under false pretenses (see: The Green Knight, one of my favorite films this year). Instead, Many Saints offers a story about Dickie Moltisanti, father of Christopher, ersatz uncle of Tony, and whose surname translates to the “many saints” of the title. Ayy, I got molti santi over here! Madonn’.
Dickie (played by Alessandro Nivola) is a Tony Soprano-like figure in his own right. He’s struggling to succeed in a brutal criminal milieu while maintaining a family, trying to balance interpersonal tenderness and professional ruthlessness (which, wouldn’t you know it, seem to have a way of overlapping).
We first meet Dickie when he goes to greet his father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, played by Ray Liotta, as he disembarks from the boat back from Italy. Aldo appears hale but wizened, with a brand new wife in tow: Guiseppina, played by Michela De Rossi, the provolone queen of Napoli. She’s Dickie’s new stepmother, but younger than him, amplifying the Freudian implications. These initial scenes are all narrated, incidentally, by Dickie’s future son, Christopher (Michael Imperioli) from beyond the grave. Chase has said in interviews that he included Chrissy’s narration as a way to help the audience get situated in the story, and it does feel tacked on in that way, though good just to hear Michael Imperioli’s voice (at least, when he’s not berating us for drinking effeminate tequila).
There are bigger storytelling challenges than trying to remember who in Many Saints is kin to whom in The Sopranos. One of the unspoken tenets of The Sopranos was to never make the mafia look too cool. As Orson Welles once said of The Godfather, “Meyer Lansky was a boring man. Hyman Roth is who he should have been! They all should have been like that, and none of them were. The Godfather was the glorification of a bunch of bums who never existed.”
Welles’s veiled old-timey racism aside, there is something about the process of turning people into cinema that tends to make them seem cooler and more larger than life than they actually were, even when the creator doesn’t intend it. Chase always took great pains to counter this, to make sure we never forgot that his subjects were not the heroes of the story; that regardless of how funny or occasional insightful they might be, they were still a bunch of petty, venal, selfish, murderous bums. The Sopranos wasn’t about criminals chasing the American Dream, it was about criminals living in the aftermath of the death of it. Chase would often make it so unflattering, to the point that his own actors, naturally attached to the characters they’d been playing for the better part of a decade, would push back.
Steven Van Zandt (E-Street band member and famous menage a trois enjoyer), to cite just one example, had to be coaxed and cajoled into shooting the scene in season five in which his character Silvio Dante executes a crawling Adriana La Cerva shortly after calling her a cunt. Yet Chase was right that it was important: Silvio is at his heart the kind of guy who could cold-bloodedly murder a loved one the minute she threatened his status, no matter how reasonable his advice could sometimes seem. To make him less complicated would’ve made him less interesting.
This presents an even bigger problem in The Many Saints of Newark, which takes place not during the mafia-after-the-fall period of the dawn of the 21st century, but during an otherwise halcyon era when the mafia wasn’t far removed from its heyday and the American Dream was still generally considered possible. It’s much harder to not to make these characters look cool when they’re wearing Mad Men suits and driving big long cars with fins on the tails. Chase and Taylor seem to know this, and Many Saints attempts to square the circle by having the characters act even more violently, more racistly, more misogynistically than their Sopranos descendants. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels… almost a little defensive.
Johnny Boy Soprano, for instance, played by Jon Bernthal (a character I would’ve liked to see a bit more from, though that’s true of most Jon Bernthal characters) nearly ruins his welcome home party because he’s so angry that a black family has moved to their block while he was away. These broader explorations in Many Saints — this is where the racism came from! — feel a little forced compared to the more compelling specifics of Johnny Boy’s strange relationship with Livia (Vera Farmiga), or Junior’s place in the family (as a sort of disregarded intellectual), and the main story about Dickie Moltisanti.
Most of that main Dickie story involves his convoluted relationship with his father’s new Italian bride as she struggles to make it in America. But there’s also his black friend from childhood, Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) who used to run the mafia’s numbers racket in the black neighborhoods, but has become inspired by the civil rights movement to maybe set out on his own. There’s even a brief appearance by an actor playing Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin king played by Denzel Washington in American Gangster. This is all reasonably entertaining to watch, but you might rightly wonder what it all adds up to. Being able to just float down a plot tributary for a while and see where it leads is something TV shows can get away with more successfully than movies can.
Basically the entire conceit of the Sopranos episode from whence Many Saints sprung is that even in the midst of the Newark Race Riots, Tony’s life is so removed from the beating heart of the nation that the main memory he has of the day was not getting to go to the amusement park with his father. That’s actually a more salient comment on race, and on Tony’s particular psychology, than Chase retelling the origin story of the Harlem heroin trade in The Many Saints of Newark.
And oh yeah, what of Tony in all of this? Michael Gandolfini, playing the teenage version of his father, eventually does get some screen time, and it’s exciting when he does. Not necessarily because Tony’s is the most interesting storyline in Many Saints (it isn’t) but because Gandolfini might be its most exciting actor. Genetics have freed him from the burden of having to do an impression of the last actor who played his character. Meanwhile the other actors playing known quantities exist on a sort of continuum, of interesting inspiration to reductive impression, from Billy Magnussen’s enjoyably subtle Paulie Walnuts to Corey Stoll’s solid but occasionally on-the-nose Junior to John Magaro’s thoroughly obnoxious Silvio, more a collection of tics than a human being. Remember how he cocks his head when he talks and shrugs a lot? Remember?? Ay! Oh!
Gandolfini, who was also brilliant playing Chris Bauer’s weird pervert son on David Simon’s criminally underrated The Deuce, plays young Tony as a sort of more innocent, muscle-cars-and-hard-rock twist on Robert Iler’s AJ: perhaps a little too soft for the world he’s been born into, torn between the ease and brutality of life as a criminal vs. the patience and diligence it would require to go straight. Young Tony isn’t exactly what you’d expect, but it fits.
The Sopranos has always been, in its own way, about the weight of generations. Dicky Moltisanti’s generation squirmed under the expectations of the old country “Mustache Petes” who raised them, with their clannishness, blood feuds, and superstitions. That mode of living was no longer really applicable to guys like Dicky’s environments, yet having experienced that, they nonetheless attempted to instill their own set of corporatized crime values in their own counterculture sons, who were in turn growing up in a world just as different as their fathers’ worlds were from their grandfathers’. It wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to argue that this type of generational conflict is and has always been David Chase’s “one weird trick.” Though in some ways it’s the only story there is. In Many Saints, Chase proves he can shift it from time period to time period without it losing much relevance.
Yet Chase seems to struggle with expectations in his own right. Many Saints is much more intriguing if you imagine it as an audition for something more. As a definitive, stand-alone product, it’s a little scattered and doesn’t breathe like the Sopranos does. Though, you imagine, as a TV show, maybe it could. Chase seems to rebel against expectations that Many Saints be “a Sopranos movie” only to end it with a prequel cliché so lame and corny that everyone I’ve described it to immediately laughed and rolled their eyes.
Still, David Chase has a way of being interesting because of his flaws rather than in spite of them. Like his most famous creation, Tony Soprano, he can’t help but to reflexively rebel against the set of values he’s been handed, even when it doesn’t always serve him.