Fourteen years after The Sopranos finished its groundbreaking run comes this blistering prequel. Fans of HBO’s New Jersey mobster saga can rejoice; The Many Saints of Newark is everything you’d want it to be.
The story covers the mid-’60s to early ’70s, when Tony Soprano is still at school (well, when he’s not grifting), but clearly soaking up everything his older relatives do. Tony’s played by William Ludwig and, later, Michael Gandolfini – son of the late James Gandolfini, who so memorably originated the role. Both are great, with Gandolfini catching some of his father’s mannerisms; but with Tony’s father (Jon Bernthal) in jail and his mother (Vera Farmiga) at her wit’s end, the spotlight falls on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the man young Tony looks up to.
As fans know, Dickie is the father to Christopher, whom Tony similarly took under his wing in the show. The plot kicks in with Dickie’s violent father Aldo ‘Hollywood Dick’ Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) returning from Italy with a new bride (Gabriella Piazza), but it’s a marriage that won’t last. In a grasp for power, the volatile Dickie is horrifying in his actions.
The narrative dovetails with real-life as the 1967 Newark Race Riots erupt on the streets. Racial tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities boil over, symbolized by Dickie’s conflict with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a hired gun who becomes dangerously entwined in Dickie’s personal life.
Co-scripted by Sopranos creator David Chase and Lawrence Konner (who penned a number of episodes), it’s a highly compelling origin story. Nivola and Liotta are standouts in a first-rate cast, while younger versions of familiar characters – Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), Silvio Dante (John Magaro) and Big Pussy (Samson Moeakiola) – weave in and out of a story that simmers for the first hour, before escalating, thrillingly, in the final stages.
A slightly bizarre idea sees the film narrated from the grave by Christopher (Michael Imperoli). It doesn’t entirely work, but then The Sopranos itself was never afraid to try out oddball dream-like moments. For the most part director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World), another Sopranos veteran, doesn’t put a foot wrong, recapturing the show’s spirit.
With Tony a rebellious schoolkid who dreams of playing in the NFL, he’s an observer to this mob life; but key to the film’s success is how deftly it establishes the world of explosive violence and easy money to which he will ultimately be swayed.
The Many Saints of Newark reaches UK cinemas on September 22 and US theatres on October 1. The Sopranos movie will also be streaming on HBO Max at the same time as in theaters – get the best HBO prices here.