By Lynn Venhaus
Thoughtfully constructed with insightful character snapshots foreshadowing the people they become in the landmark television series, “The Sopranos,” the well-cast “The Many Saints of Newark” is one of the year’s best films.
Molti Santi translates to “Many Saints” in English, and the backstory connecting the people to Tony Soprano is a fascinating, yet tangled, web. The movie begins with a voice from the grave, and an Emmy-winning actor reprises his famous role through narration.
Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this prequel to “The Sopranos” follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) as he climbs the ladder in the DiMeo crime family. His nephew is Anthony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini), a teenager who idolizes his uncle.
Dickie’s influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss we came to know in the HBO series, which ran from 1999 to 2007. Tony is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark’s history as rival gangsters rise and challenge the DiMeo crime family’s hold over the increasingly race-torn city.
The year is 1967, and one mobster notes it’s the “Summer of Love,” which is ironic, given all the violence on the Newark streets. Race riots erupt, creating chaos and confusion. The times, they are a-changing, and rival gangsters try to muscle in on the Italian mob’s stronghold.
Racist attitudes prevail, although Dickie has Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who collects money from the black side of town for him, as he runs the numbers game.
Leslie Odom Jr., 2016 Tony winner as Aaron Burr “Hamilton” and Oscar nominee as Sam Cooke in last year’s “One Night in Miami,” stretches his acting chops as the ambitious and fearless defender of his turf. He becomes a formidable foe.
A warning, although expected — there is a lot of bloodshed. In scenes of grisly torture and gruesome murders, the violence is explosive on the mean streets, and sometimes, directed at their own inner circle. Such is the way of the family business. Lines are frequently crossed, matter-of-factly, and sometimes without consequence.
Dickie, who has had a love-hate relationship with his menacing father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Montisanti, played with verve by Ray Liotta, is drawn to dear old dad’s new Sicilian bride, Giuseppina, played by the beautiful Michela del Rossi, who looks like an actress in a Fellini film. She soon becomes his goomah (mistress).
Connecting the dots gets even more complicated – see the movie to find out how everyone is six degrees of separation.
Familiarity with the series, which ran for six seasons, is helpful, although not a prerequisite. However, people with knowledge of the series will understand the references and anticipate the mix of dark humor, and secret revelations.
Universally regarded as one of the best shows ever on TV, “The Sopranos” won 21 Primetime Emmys and 2 Peabody Awards. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written TV series of all time, and TV Guide ranked it the best television series of all time. In 2016, it ranked first in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.
Some of the indelible characters from the television series earned Emmy Awards and nominations, and are an integral part of the prequel, while others barely emerge from the background.
Writer (and show creator) David Chase teamed up with an alum, Lawrence Konner, who was Emmy-nominated for writing “Second Opinion” (Sopranos) and this is a fascinating look back as to how things developed and about the people who made things happen.
In the series, Tony Soprano juggled the problems with his two families – his wife Carmela and their two children, Meadow and Anthony Jr., and his mob family. Power struggles, betrayal, violence, panic attacks, affairs and keeping the business from being exposed as a criminal enterprise were all part of the intoxicating mix. And a lot of people were whacked.
The movie has many of the same issues compacted into nearly two hours – concentrating on the personal and professional struggles of Dickie Moltisanti. And a lot of people get whacked.
For fans, seeing Janice Soprano (Alexandra Intrator) as a rebellious teenager and a young Silvio Dante (John Magaro), wearing a different hairstyle, is just fun.
Corey Stoll is an intriguing Uncle Junior and Vera Farmiga conjures up memories of the mean elderly woman she became as Tony’s mom, so no wonder she is such a non-stop nag here.
Sharp and savvy, Alan Taylor is at the helm. He was previously nominated for primetime Emmy Awards for ‘Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” and won for directing “The Sopranos” episode, “Kennedy and Heidi.”
While the writing is top-notch, so are the vintage costume designs by Amy Westcott and the production design by Bob Shaw. It steeps us in the cultural shifting times and the by-gone post-war life in eastern American cities.
In addition, another highlight is a killer soundtrack, just like the series. The eclectic music selection perfectly captures each mood and time: The Rat Pack-vibe of the smoky clubs, the rock music pouring out of Tony’s new stereo speakers and a wide range of tunes punctuating the action.
But the very best element of the film is its cast. In an exceptional star turn, Alessandro Nivola emerges as someone to watch, who rises to the occasion as Dickie – and he’s mesmerizing.
The gamble of casting the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, as the younger version of his father’s character, turns out to be a smart decision. He soulfully embodies teenage Anthony with his father’s mannerisms, if not his speaking voice, slipping into the role with ease. He’s another one to watch. It’s guileless and seamless,
Gritty and gripping, “The Many Saints of Newark” bristles with an excitement that describes a fitting backstory and a welcome return to these characters.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is a crime drama directed by Alan Taylor. It stars Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Leslie Odom Jr., Billy Magnussen and Michela del Rossi. It is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity and has a runtime of 2 hours. It is in theaters and streaming on HBOMax on Oct. 1. Lynn’s Grade: A.