Anyone who watched The Sopranos during its original airing remembers where they were for the series finale in 2007. I was at a Slate company retreat at the Mohonk Mountain House in the Catskills, where the airing of the last episode was a big enough deal that the hotel’s staff wheeled out a large TV for us all to watch together after our Sunday night group dinner. When the last scene, of mob boss Tony Soprano and his family meeting at an ice cream parlor where he might or might not have been about to get whacked, abruptly cut to a black screen, we had good reason to think the cause might have been a power outage; after all, we were at an old Quaker resort in the mountains, where the TV reception had reason to be iffy.
As the Journey ballad “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” kicked in over the credits, there was a collective howl of dismay, followed by an hour or so of arguing whether the sudden ending had been a technical accident or—as turned out to be the case—a deliberately audience-frustrating move on the part of the show’s creator, David Chase. This being the era before social media was a widespread phenomenon—Facebook did not overtake Myspace as the most-used platform until the following year—it was still possible to debate such things over a round of drinks without anyone running to the internet to check. I remember taking a while to be convinced that the cut to black had been an intentional gambit on Chase’s part. As it became clear in the next day’s coverage of the finale that it had, I remember feeling impressed by the show’s audacity in simply refusing to provide closure on what happened to Tony. Did he die? If so, who killed him, and what happened to the rest of the Soprano family afterward? If nothing else, ending the series on a note of such absolute ambiguity ensured that the audience would never quite feel done with the Sopranos, or The Sopranos.
With 14 years of hindsight, Chase’s way of ending the series seems like a brilliant fuck-you to an audience as addicted to vicarious gangster-gawking as James Gandolfini’s perpetually dissatisfied Tony was to power, money, and violence. Because of the almost aggressively avant-garde gesture of that ending—you want narrative resolution? I got your narrative resolution right here!—it’s hard to imagine The Sopranos ever having a sequel. But with The Many Saints of Newark, it now has a prequel, co-written and produced by Chase and directed by Alan Taylor, a prestige-TV veteran who directed many episodes of the original show. The film’s aim is to fill in the question of how Tony turned into the man whose life either ended or didn’t in that New Jersey restaurant booth, a killer who had just enough of a soul left to dimly intuit that he had become a very bad man, but neither the clarity nor the moral courage to become anything else.
The Many Saints of Newark starts with narration so high-concept it threatens to be cute: Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Tony’s onetime protegé and would-be made man, speaks to us from beyond the grave, telling us about how he met his end (I won’t spoil the details of his death, but as Sopranos watchers might guess, it was not as an old man in bed surrounded by his loved ones). Thankfully this voice-over soon recedes into the background as the film flashes back to the summer of 1967. Before Christopher’s birth, Tony (played at this age by the excellent William Ludwig) is a middle school kid living in Newark. His father, Johnny Boy, (Jon Bernthal) is a midlevel mobster who, early in the film, is sent to jail on charges of armed assault.* Tony and his sister are left in the care of their depressed mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga), who’s nearly as incapable of enjoying life or showing any sign of maternal affection as was her later-life incarnation on the HBO show, played by the great Nancy Marchand.
But Tony does have a substitute father figure in his life: Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Christopher’s father-to-be, who is a slightly higher-ranking and far more polished mafioso than Tony’s cruder and less ambitious dad. A soft-spoken operator with a well-hidden violent temper, Dickie is in charge of running the Newark numbers racket; his father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), is a powerful local boss who has just returned from Italy with a young Sicilian bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi).
Beginning about half an hour in, the scene shifts to the 1970s, and kid Tony is replaced by teenage Tony, played by the late James Gandolfini’s 22-year-old son Michael. The presence of the younger Gandolfini has been the most-hyped element of The Many Saints of Newark, but while his performance is immensely charming, with an untrained quality that only adds to its freshness, it is not Tony but Dickie who is the movie’s chief protagonist. The story tracks Dickie’s development from midlevel mob functionary to ascendant crime boss, a Godfather-style trajectory that’s a bit overfamiliar in our Cosa Nostra movie–saturated era, but that Nivola makes us care about again with his smoldering, tormented performance. Midway through the movie he acquires a confidant whose identity I can’t reveal without spoiling a major plot point; their encounters provide some of this plot-packed movie’s quietest and most dramatically powerful moments, as well as some welcome moments of wicked humor.
Early on, the film introduces a subplot about racial tension in 1960s Newark through the character of Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a former schoolmate of Dickie’s who works for him collecting payments from businesses in the city’s Black neighborhoods. After the riots of the summer of ’67 and the later growth of the Black Power movement, Harold gets the notion to start his own Black crime organization, resulting in an extended and bloody gang war. Meanwhile, the smart but underachieving Tony is getting in trouble, opening up a schoolwide betting ring and taking a joyride in a stolen Mr. Softee truck. Once he comes to understand how entrenched his family is in the organized crime business, Tony professes to want no part of it; the audience’s knowledge of just how big a part of it he will one day become is what invests his scenes with more pathos and deeper psychological insight than the script itself provides.
The Many Saints of Newark swings freely between original storytelling (mainly in scenes involving Dickie and his milieu) and a kind of abject fan service that depends on viewers’ familiarity with the show. There are younger incarnations of some of the series’s important secondary characters—Silvio Dante, Junior Soprano, Paulie Walnuts—who are so hastily sketched in they are essentially the gangster version of Muppet Babies. Even Carmela, Tony’s wife-to-be, shows up in a single scene that seems inserted for the sole purpose of name-checking her character’s presence. Who is the young Carmela, and what does she see in Tony? We never learn, though we do get a glimpse into the interiority of one female character. Giuseppina, Hollywood Dick’s immigrant bride, dreams of opening a beauty shop of her own and, just as Carmela will do years later, turns a blind eye to what the various mobbed-up men in her life are willing to do to help her realize that dream.
The production design by Bob Shaw is a beautifully detailed evocation of ’60s and ’70s urban blight, with occasional nods to familiar sets from the HBO show. Satriale’s Pork Store, a favorite hangout of the middle-aged mobsters, turns out to have changed very little since their youth. The constant needle drops can be a little on the nose—would wannabe Black mobsters really carry out their first major hit while blasting Gil Scott-Heron?—and a few of the more outlandish plot twists bring up questions that it would take a limited series to answer.
Still, once you can get past this movie’s reliance on the audience bringing in a prior store of knowledge about, and queasy affection for, its troubled characters, The Many Saints of Newark is a worthy companion to the series and a fascinating watch in itself. It believably reverse-engineers the backstory of one of the most unforgettable characters in television history and introduces at least one new character, Nivola’s deeply conflicted Dickie, whom it’s easy to imagine starring in a series of his own. The filmmakers’ choice to score the credits with the Sopranos theme song—the gloomy-yet-irresistible “Woke Up This Morning” by the British band A3—points up what a double-edged sword it is to make a movie that depends on our familiarity with a beloved TV show. Hearing those familiar synth riffs made me resent being pandered to, even as it provided an undeniable Pavlovian thrill. Walking out of the theater, I wanted nothing so much as to get home and fire up Season 1, Episode 1, of The Sopranos, a show that does the same thing as its well-crafted cinematic spinoff, only better. No doubt HBO Max, where the movie will be streaming at the same time as its theatrical release, has already figured out how to use the autoplay feature to encourage viewers to do just that.
Correction, Sept. 30, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Jon Bernthal’s first name.