This post contains spoilers for The Sopranos and mild spoilers for The Many Saints of Newark. Proceed with appropriate caution.
“‘Remember When’ is the lowest form of conversation.”
— Tony Soprano (“Remember When,” The Sopranos)
Fourteen years after the Soprano family shared an order of onion rings in a booth at Holsten’s — and after “Don’t Stop Believin’” suddenly became one of the most stressful songs we’d ever heard — we have a full feature film installment in one of the greatest television series of all time. Written and conceived by The Sopranos creator David Chase (alongside original series regular Lawrence Konner), and directed by HBO-favorite Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark revisits Tony Soprano’s childhood and adolescence in Newark, NJ.
Specifically, the story centers on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) — who, after his death, became a legend in the adult lives of his nephew, Tony, and son, Christopher. The film shows Dickie battling his own personal demons while his influence on young Tony (Michael Gandolfini) grows during Johnny Soprano’s (Jon Bernthal) time in prison. At the same time, the DiMeo crime family is navigating the tumult of civil unrest in Newark and the rise of organized crime within the city’s Black community.
Now, full disclosure, I’ve only recently watched The Sopranos for the first time. A big reason for this is that the series ended when I was in middle school. That said, my early life was still surrounded by the show. I grew up in a household of true devotees — every time I used the family computer, I did so under the suspicious glares of the iconic poster for Season 4. I also was one of the subjects of Steve Schirripa’s informative guide to being an Italian father, Big Daddy’s Rules: Raising Daughters is Tougher Than I Look. No… really. I am in this book.
So in the initial wintry depths of the pandemic (and apparently alongside every other person my age), I knew it was time to honor my upbringing and experience the series in full at last. Which I did, slowly, over the course of the past year and a half. And just in time, too — I finished the final episode literally the night before I was set to attend the premiere of The Many Saints of Newark as part of Tribeca Festival’s Fall Preview at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.
I say all this because both the timing and the setting made all the difference for viewing this prequel. It likely goes without saying, but if you haven’t seen The Sopranos, you will probably not love this movie. And actually — as certain members of my family can attest — if you don’t really remember The Sopranos all too well, you will probably not love this movie.
In my case, I was about as fresh on the original series as possible, and loved the show so much that it was in danger of becoming my entire personality. Yet, my feelings upon watching the film were… complicated.
Let’s start with what worked. If I had to boil it all down into a thesis, it would be this: see the movie with as many Sopranos fans as you can.
In many ways, Newark feels like fan service. While that approach has its downsides (we’ll get to those later), its biggest benefit is that it makes for a film that is really damn fun to watch in a room full of people who love the series. We get to see legendary stories come to life, like the infamous car ride in which Johnny Soprano shoots through his wife’s beehive hairdo. We get references to favorite lines — there was particularly strong applause for Uncle Junior’s insistence that Tony doesn’t have what it takes to make the varsity football squad. We get an allusion to Tony’s eventual time spent in therapy. We even get a surprising resolution to a long-standing Sopranos mystery (no, not that one). I joined the audience in a collective gasp.
Most of all, we get performers who understood exactly what it was they were there to do. And that was to embody some of television’s most feared and beloved characters, for those who know them best. Everyone puts in the work, but there are a few standouts. Vera Farmiga has tough shoes to fill as the queen of woe-is-me, Livia Soprano, and does so admirably — with a particularly great line reading of the word “lunatic.” I’m also pretty sure Corey Stoll did some sort of dark magic to swap voices with Dominic Chianese for his portrayal of Uncle Junior. Stoll is a master of stealing full movies with minimal screen time, and Newark is no exception.
We need to take a full moment for John Magaro’s Silvio Dante, though. I’m pretty sure I finally have a complete understanding of what camp is thanks to this performance. You can’t (and shouldn’t) do a subtle homage to Steve Van Zandt’s signature sneering shoulder-hunch, and Magaro dials it all the way up. There’s a moment in the film when young Silvio walks down a hallway, and Magaro replicates his mannerisms so perfectly that the entire Beacon Theatre erupted in cheers like we were at a sporting event, not a movie premiere. Truly just for the walk.
Finally, of course, there’s Michael Gandolfini in the role his late father originated. To be honest, the film did not give him as much screen time as I would have expected (or as the Tony-heavy trailer would suggest). He’s very much on the periphery — this is Dickie’s story after all. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of the context, but I could at times almost feel the weight of playing this character in his performance. And yet, in moments throughout the film he strikes an expression and transforms into James Gandolfini’s Tony so suddenly it truly jolted me. It couldn’t have been easy, but he did the part justice.
Now, for the less fun part.
First, as entertaining as it was, the humor felt at times to be cheapening to the series. For instance, there’s a scene where Silvio enacts some particularly gruesome violence, only to have his toupee come loose mid-fight. The Sopranos does have some incredibly funny moments, but this type of slapstick comedy felt out of place.
Then there’s the story of racial tension surrounding the DiMeo crime family. Leslie Odom Jr. gives an intense and charismatic performance as Harold, a partner-turned-rival of Dickie’s, but the film’s treatment of Newark’s Black population felt clumsy at best, deeply uncomfortable at worst. The civil unrest in the city feels like it is being used more to create an aesthetic of violence than to hold any concrete exploration of the complexities between these two communities. There are allusions to police brutality and racial profiling, but in a story that is primarily devoted to its central white characters, these moments are bound to feel like scene-setting, or even afterthoughts. Indeed, Black characters besides Harold often seem present as props to illustrate the central mobsters’ racist attitudes and actions, at times leading to unfortunate caricatures. And the film’s most brutal act of violence is taken out on a Black man at the hands of four of the white leads in a scene that felt grotesque and gratuitous. Certainly The Sopranos never tried to hide its characters’ racism, but Newark felt like it was missing a fair amount of nuance in this portrayal.
Leaving the theater after the film’s electric final scene, I confronted my conflicting feelings. On one hand, I was riding the high of this particularly raucous version of the collective moviegoing experience — something I had not been able to enjoy for a long time (and, honestly, might not be returning to anytime soon). There are still many moments I look forward to seeing again on HBO after the film’s official release. But I couldn’t help feeling a bit unsatisfied with what I’d just watched. What was particularly surprising to me was the fact that the primary creative team of this film all had major hands in the original series, and yet Newark just… didn’t feel like The Sopranos.
Walking home, a quote from the show’s final season popped into my head. In the fifteenth episode, Tony and Paulie Gualtieri (Tony Sirico) travel to Miami to lay low after the FBI discovers a body they had buried years earlier. They grab dinner with DiMeo family associate Beansie Gaeta (Paul Herman), who starts reminiscing with Paulie about the good old days with Johnny Soprano and Dickie Moltisanti. Tony becomes fed up, telling the two older men, “‘Remember When’ is the lowest form of conversation.”
At this point in the series, we have seen glimpses of Tony’s disillusionment with the old guard of his crew and the crime family that raised him. But for the rest of his associates, those golden days are still mythologized. Most importantly, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) is among those still caught up in the lore of the past. Why is this so key? Well, The Many Saints of Newark is his movie.
To start, the film is quite literally named after his father (and, by extension, after him). As someone who speaks Italian I was deeply disappointed in myself for needing the HBO Twitter account to point this out to me.
Lightbulb moment for ya. pic.twitter.com/5xhr57f3fN
— HBO (@HBO) September 18, 2021
Additionally, the film opens in a cemetery, weaving through tombstones until we reach Christopher’s — he is our narrator from beyond the grave. As I reflected more on the film, keeping this framing in mind gave me a new perspective on the strange dissonance I was feeling.
A major shift from the series to the film is the cinematography. One of the many things that made The Sopranos so effective was just how normal its characters’ lives seemed — while such ferocious violence was powering it. Growing up as an Italian-American on Long Island (New Jersey’s sister in being NYC-adjacent and having good bagels), a lot of the Soprano family’s home life felt fairly familiar. My family had our own Nuovo Vesuvio (Il Forno), our own pest control issues (raccoons instead of bears, thankfully), and our own trips to “the city.” Before you ask, no, we did not also have our own mafia ties. Now, I’m aware these are not particularly unique qualities of life; it’s pretty standard suburban fare. And that’s what was so impactful about the series: the violence simmering just beneath the surface of this relative mundanity lends it an even more insidious sense of danger. While there are some beautifully framed shots and ingenious use of sound on the show, it was filmed in a fairly straightforward manner. This only served to further emphasize the contradictory nature of Tony’s daytime and nighttime lives.
Newark, on the other hand, is very much a movie. It’s stylized and brutal: you’re acutely aware that you’re watching a mobster film. I’m not saying David Chase should have simply mimicked his original work — it makes perfect sense to want to expand to fit the big screen. But having watched the series immediately before viewing the film, the tonal shift was stark, and it felt intentional.
Thinking about it as Christopher’s telling makes sense: I mean, who else amongst Tony’s crew could give these stories of yore the cinematic treatment more fittingly than the writer and producer of Cleaver himself? In Newark, the father he never had the chance to really know becomes larger than life, as does the era in which he operated. And so we see the past the way the characters of The Sopranos do, the way we’ve always heard them tell it. All their mythologizing of the past is grand and violent and stylish and cool. But it’s also careful. We rarely engage fully with the emotions of any one character in the film, or even get full pictures of them as individuals. Because how could we? For Christopher and the others to depict these characters for what they truly are would be to admit the shortcomings of their heroes (and so in some way of the lives they themselves have chosen). So these original gangsters are kept at an arm’s length, just close enough where their sins can explain or excuse those of their children.
The truest vulnerability we see is Dickie’s, and it makes sense — there’s so much of Christopher in him. There’s his sudden violence towards his loved ones (justice for Adriana!!!), his cinematic self reverence in a scene where he imagines coaching a local baseball team for blind children, his complicated relationships with the fathers (and father figures) in his life. Alessandro Nivola seems to lean into this, his vocal inflections often recalling Michael Imperioli’s. Throughout the series, Christopher is plainly aware that his father, contrary to the surname, is no saint. And so Dickie feels like the most honest exploration of the anger Christopher struggled to reign in, and the legacy he struggled to uphold.
It’s fascinating to think that we’re seeing this world the way its characters would want it to be shown. But even with this reading, does the film work?
For me, I found myself on Tony’s side: “remember when” got in the way a little too much for my taste. There are countless lessons and analyses to be found in the original series. I, personally, tended to focus on its exploration of toxic masculinity, which it deconstructed with nuance, but also with a clear stance on the immense psychological toll this tendency took on the show’s characters. Newark, I think, relies a bit too much on its audience to make the connection. In its cinematographic choices, the violence its men enact to assert their dominance becomes stylized — there were even a few bloody murders that elicited cheers from a small portion of the audience, which made me feel that the point had been lost.
So much of that expectation around what it means to be a man also comes from family dynamics, another cornerstone of The Sopranos. Here is where I found the biggest downside to the film’s nostalgic reenactments in service to its fans.
Take, for example, the scene I mentioned earlier where Johnny Boy Soprano shoots Livia through her beehive hairdo. In the series, we hear this story over a drunken game of Monopoly between Tony, his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), his sister Janice (Aida Turturro), and his brother-in-law (and Soprano crew member) Bobby (Steve Schirripa). Their raucous laughter while telling the tale is a shocking mismatch to the cruelty described in the scene. Hearing them tell this story, which has grown into a humorous family legend, it becomes starkly clear the lengths the Soprano siblings have gone in order to absorb and live with the violence that surrounded their childhood. By putting this moment on film, we miss its complex impact that reverberates throughout Johnny and Livia’s children’s lives — instead, its referential nature reduces it to comedy. Some stories need to be told to truly see them.
In the end, what The Many Saints of Newark did best was further highlight the genius of the original Sopranos series, and provide sweet homage to the personalities we love and miss. Despite its shortcomings, I’d still recommend you gather your crew around a nice plate of gabagool and allow yourself to remember when.
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