Prior to the revolution that dramatically changed the way we consume television, most of us counted on the major networks for our daily allowance of small screen serial entertainment. But a lot changed on the evening of January 10, 1999. That’s the night when HBO premiered the pilot episode of “The Sopranos”. The immensely popular hour-long mob drama would change the way people looked at and thought of serial television. And it opened the door for the countless cutting-edge shows that would follow.
“The Sopranos” wasn’t HBO’s first venture into television, but nothing changed the television landscape quite like the esteemed crime series which earned big ratings despite being on a premium cable network. The show would go on to receive a total of 111 Emmy nominations while winning 21 statues over the course of its six-season 86-episode run.
The success of the “The Sopranos” led to HBO changing their business model and investing more in original programming. It also paved the way, not only for other cable networks, but also for the lucrative streaming world we currently live in. It’s hard to overstate the show’s impact.
Built around the amusing premise of a mob boss seeking therapy to lower his stress levels, “The Sopranos” would evolve into a much more thoughtful and layered study. It was essentially a psychological family drama fused together with a grounded and gritty gangster story. The late James Gandolfini’s iconic Anthony “Tony” Soprano was the perfect anchor – an Italian-American wiseguy based in New Jersey with as many headaches at home as he had running his underworld business. While the series covered quite a bit of ground, there was still plenty of story left to be told.
Enter “The Many Saints of Newark”, a prequel to “The Sopranos” that sees show-runner David Chase return to the characters he spent years nurturing. Directed by Alan Taylor and co-written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, the story heads back to Newark, New Jersey and unfolds during the tumultuous 1960s and early 70s when the city’s racial tensions were at a boil and as rival gangs were springing up and taking aim at the powerful DiMeo crime family.
This is the world Anthony “Tony” Soprano grew up in. ”The Many Saints of Newark” begins in 1967 when the future mafia don (played early on by William Ludwig) was just a kid. Later it moves to the 1970s where, in an audacious bit of casting, James Gandolfini’s son Michael plays the younger version of the character his father made famous.
Perhaps most interesting is the way “Saints” tells Tony’s backstory. It doesn’t take the traditional route of following some detailed timeline of the central character’s life. Instead it unveils Tony’s story through the people closest to him. Chase puts a ton of effort into showing us where Tony came from, mostly centering on the knotty family history between the Sopranos and the Moltisantis. As you would expect, their history is marked by family drama, crime, betrayal and violence which a young Tony takes in while mostly sitting in the background.
The one principal figure in the story is Tony’s uncle in name only, Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Dickie is a suave and confident mob soldier working under his father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (a terrific Ray Liotta). Dickie is a handsome smooth-talker, brandishing a disarming smile and barely repressing a vengeful violent side. While he’s a good business man, Dickie’s judgement when it comes to family is a little wobbly. Such as when he takes a liking to his pompous father’s new (and considerably younger) trophy wife Guiseppina (Michela De Rossi). But he’s good to Tony, taking him under his wing while the kid’s father, Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal) was doing time in prison.
Dickie makes for a fitting centerpiece, but “Saints” truly is an ensemble film. Chase fills his world with both new and familiar names, telling their stories with the same moral ambiguity as the series. They’re brought to life through phenomenal performances top to bottom. Among the best is Vera Farmiga as Tony’s paranoid and borderline neurotic mother Livia. Corey Stoll playing the younger Corrado “Junior” Soprano complete with his signature glasses and crankiness. And a fierce Leslie Odom Jr. as an ambitious numbers runner Harold McBrayer, who once worked under Dickie but is inspired by the city riots to start an underworld racket of his own.
Not everything works as well as it should. There’s a love triangle of sorts that springs out of nowhere. And considering how it ends, the angle really needed some kind of buildup. As for setting up Tony Soprano’s entrance into mob life, the movie does a great job presenting the influences that led him down the path. Yet it never lets us see him take the first step from aspiring football player and rock-n-roller into a life of organized crime.
Still, “Saints” is a solid “Sopranos” companion piece. There’s a fair amount of fan service and it helps to at least have a working knowledge of the characters. For those reasons, it may not be the most accessible entry point for newcomers. But with its stellar performances and the same alluring style of character-driven storytelling that made the series such a hit, “Saints” has plenty to offer to even the most casual mob movie fan.