Tainted Saints and Sainted Taints.
I really wanted to like THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK. Hey, it’s a prequel to THE SOPRANOS, the best television show in the history of television. But it’s not quite a prequel and not quite THE SOPRANOS…
… Not quite a prequel because the character that was the blood and bone of THE SOPRANOS – Tony Soprano (played by the late, very great, James Gandolfini) is not fleshed out enough as a young man to give us any connection to his overwhelming presence in that series. And not quite THE SOPRANOS because – well, it’s focused on Tony Soprano’s mentor, Dickie Moltisanti (played by the excellent Alessandro Nivola), hence the title “MANY SAINTS” (molti=many, santi=saints). Now, Dickie’s story is interesting enough – he murders his dad, screws his dad’s widow, gets caught up in a turf war, and is eventually gunned down – it’s a 7-star movie – but it’s a “disappointment” because it’s not the movie the producers told us to expect.
And even though THE SOPRANOS creator, David Chase, is helming MANY SAINTS as the writer and producer, it doesn’t capture that grounded family life, black humor and gritty humanity that THE SOPRANOS exuded in every frame.
MANY SAINTS is the SOLO movie that no one needed and no SOPRANOS fans asked for. Just like any movie about a famous person, who led an unextraordinary life before they were famous, we have to ask ourselves, Would we even be watching this if it wasn’t connected to something greater than itself?
Well, since we are watching it, here are the Top 5 Bottom 5 things about THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK.
Let’s start with the 5 worst things about this movie. David Chase created THE greatest series on Earth, with one of THE greatest layered characters in TV. Chase can’t possibly capture the origin of that multi-dimensional force of nature in a 2-hour movie — about someone else! Yes, there’s talk about a series now – but that’s just bullshit speculation to get your eyes on the internet to sell ads.
Chase should have followed in the footsteps of BETTER CALL SAUL, the stellar spinoff from BREAKING BAD, and turned Tony Soprano’s origin story into a series from the get-go. They could have fleshed out Dickie Moltisanti into the legend that we heard of constantly in THE SOPRANOS – and – they have Gandolfini’s son to play Tony. What a coup for any TV producer! Michael Gandolfini’s blood connection would have propelled the series – first as novelty, and then as compelling drama, as Michael grew into the role. Alan Taylor, a veteran of THE SOPRANOS and GAME OF THRONES, directs MANY SAINTS – but he is given no time to show us how Tony breaks bad.
In THE SOPRANOS, we pretty much get the attitude of the Italian crime families toward “uh, charcoal briquettes, uh, mulignans”… yet, there is a heavy presence of African-American co-conspirators and rival gangs in MANY SAINTS (led by the excellent Leslie Odom Jr), and that takes us right out of the SOPRANOS universe immediately.
The thing is, David Chase started writing this movie about the 1967 Newark riots – a real world event sparked by cops beating a black man for a revoked license [this story never changes, does it? fucken amerika]; it was an incident that intensified the animosity between African-Americans and Italian-Americans. Over the years, Chase’s story would morph into a SOPRANOS story.
“I was just interested in the whole Newark riot thing. I started thinking about those events and organized crime, and I just got interested in mixing those two elements.”
– David Chase
Tony actually mentions the Newark riots in Season 4 Episode 7, when he’s conspiring with Ron Zellman. IRREGARDLESS – when MANY SAINTS turned into Tony’s origin tale, keeping the race riot B-plot became distracting. I mean, the riots don’t redound back to Tony, Leslie Odom deciding to start his own gang doesn’t redound to Tony; Leslie Odom banging Dickie’s mistress doesn’t redound to Tony. Chase could’ve canned all those plotlines. Or maybe, HBO liked how handy it was to check the diversity boxes with the heightened African-American presence, and to simultaneously apologize for how blacks were treated in the original series. Maybe they shoulda just called it The Many Saints of New-WOKE.
Looking as bloated and pockmarked as a Frankenstein’s monster, Ray Liotta plays Dickie Moltisanti’s father, “Hollywood Dick,” a caricature of a loud, abrasive, misogynistic goombah. After he starred in one of the Big 4 gangster films, who woulda thought that having Ray Liotta in your gangster film would be a case of “Now go home and get your fucken shinebox”?…
One Ray Liotta dies, another Ray Liotta rises to take its place. Ray Liotta plays his own twin, called Uncle Sally. They did this actor-playing-their-own-twin gag in THE SOPRANOS with Philly and Patsy Parisi, and Jeanie and Joanie Cusamano – and it was jarring then, and with this famous actor, it’s even more jarring. Are there no more fucken actors? Playing it more stoic than Hollywood Dick, this FrankenLiotta becomes Dickie’s mentor, and indirectly affects young Tony’s mental breakdown.
In any other production, this stunt casting would be fine, but think of all the Sopranos characters that could have been fleshed out in Uncle Sally’s screentime (Jackie Aprile, Charmaine Bucco, Bobby Bacala, Richie Aprile, Feech La Manna, Johnny Sack…) In a movie sold as the prequel to Tony’s embittered existence, every minute spent on Sally’s irrelevant B-story is another minute lost in the Soprano goombah-verse…
So – the worst thing about MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK is that we never identify any real social disorder in Anthony Soprano. Considering it was forcefully sold as his origin, (“Witness the making of Tony Soprano” / “What made Tony Soprano?”) young Anthony (played by William Ludwig) is just a side-character, and teen Anthony (played by Michael Gandolfini) is not given enough screentime. We never see what transformed young Anthony into Thony. Yes, the ending scene gives Anthony some motivation, but only to seek revenge for his beloved mentor. It doesn’t explain how and why he would eventually become the sociopathic kingpin of New Jersey.
Y’see, simple revenge is something we can all relate to. A sense of justice is built into every human. But the most brutal truth we have to face about THE SOPRANOS is that no matter how much we love these characters, they are SOCIOPATHS – their mindset is not built into all of us. They have NO moral compass; they are hypocrites and anti-social felons and psychopaths. That was the grisly beauty of THE SOPRANOS – showing us how these psychos co-existed in normal society: Patsy nuzzling a gun at the nipples of Tony’s ex, warning, “It won’t be cinematic” – and then doing the grocery shopping; Ralphie beating to death his stripper girlfriend – then having a drink with the boys; Christopher shooting the screenwriter simply for not sympathizing with his alienation – then going home to the wife and kid; Tony strangling a man – then taking his daughter college hunting. There is some limbic moral instinct disconnected in their brains. It’s not just Tony that needs therapy – they ALL do!
And THAT’S why MANY SAINTS is a disappointment – because we all subliminally felt that a simple revenge motif wasn’t enough of an “origin” for a character as morally bankrupt as we know Tony to be. We found ourselves subconsciously searching for that tripwire moment when this baby-cheeked kid crossed the line from childish misdeeds to brain-disconnected sociopath. And that moment never comes. This movie never had the makings of a varsity athlete.
the framing scene
“That’s the guy, Adriana. My uncle Tony. The guy I’m going to hell for.” Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) sighs this lament in S5 E12: Long Term Parking. And MANY SAINTS opens with Christopher narrating from beyond the grave. It tries to establish the similarities in the avuncular relationships between Dickie and Tony, and Tony and Christopher. But a ghost narrating? It’s simultaneously kooky and a solid storytelling move, the impact of which is revealed only in the film’s slamdunk ending, in – wait for it – THE TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK.
If you know THE SOPRANOS, it’s interesting and amusing to see all those characters represented as younger, all playing their parts well – Vera Farmiga as Tony’s toxic mother, Olivia. Corey Stoll as Uncle June, and John Magaro as Silvio Dante – magnificent – he’s got that walk down and the tilt of the head. And there’s young Paulie and Pussy and Carmela and Janice… And I was hoping to see Joseph Siravo as Johnny Boy Soprano, Tony’s dad from the series (sadly, I learned he died in April 2021), so Jon Bernthal is Tony’s dad here. Even Tippy makes an appearance!
Again – if we did not know the deep background of these people from another series, would their characterizations here have any affect at all? I saw a review where someone complained that Silvio turns into caricature here, not realizing that Silvio himself (played by Steve van Zandt in the series) was a caricature, basing his persona on movie mobsters (“Just when I thought I was out – they pull me back in!”). Real life ex-mobster Michael Franzese remarks that after THE GODFATHER was released in 1972, actual mob guys started styling themselves on the suaveness and stoicism of the men of respect they perceived onscreen.
And it’s great to see Dickie Moltisanti at last after hearing about him so much, but uh, even though I love Alessandro Nivola – where’s Tony?
There may be no tripwire from normal to psycho, but there is at least one moment we hear Anthony’s cry for help – when he relates to his guidance counselor how his fondest memory is that of his mother reading to him, and him snuggling up to her. And how it never happened again. It’s a moment that spurs our whole recollection of Season One, and Nancy Marchand’s Olivia incessantly browbeating Tony, and us thinking now, that in the back of his mind somewhere, there was that regret that his mudder had turned into this harridan instead of the nurturing mother he found for one nostalgic moment; it’s a moment that illustrates there once was a crossroads in Tony’s journey. That crossroads is the tripwire we wanted more of.
The SOPRANOS theme song slides in like a rattlesnake under the closing credits. We didn’t even realize Woke Up This Morning was missing from this Soprano-verse, but now we embrace it like a thirsty lover. It’s the original Alabama 3 recording, not some cover by a chick trying to sound sultry. And that iconic opening and closing statement: “Woke up this mornin’ / Got yourself a gun…” Written by Jake Black and Rob Spragg – from the 1997 album Exile on Coldharbour Lane – it’s originally about an abused woman who has had enough, not a mobster. But even its writers are happy that it’s taken on a life of its own past the original meaning.
Woke Up This Morning is cited in the book Music Publishing: The Roadmap to Royalities as the paradigm for a great theme song that “generates anticipation, immediately puts the viewer in a focused frame of mind, and creates the kind of sonic familiarity that breeds audience loyalty.” – Ron Sobel, Dick Weissman. Wow… As the movie winds out, it manages to reel us back into that Jersey state of mind – Just when we thought we were out – they pull me back in!
James Gandolfini’s 22 year old son, Michael Gandolfini, plays the teenage Tony Soprano. It’s wonderful and tragic and intriguing and sorrowful and hopeful all at once. If James had not died from a heart attack in 2013, we would not even have this movie – we would have had a bona fide SOPRANOS movie. But now – that will never be. As David Chase has said, rightfully, “without Jim Gandolfini, there is no SOPRANOS. There is no Tony Soprano.” And that’s just heart-breaking: There IS no Tony Soprano on this Earth any more.
…Born in 1999, when THE SOPRANOS debuted, Michael had never even seen the full series when he got the job as young Tony. And yet, he didn’t need to “see” Tony to play Tony. He IS Tony. It’s in his blood, in his every movement; his body language, his eyes, his cheeks, his sideways look; in his every fiber – we see James onscreen. And we weep. Because Michael embodies the last remnants of James. And is it crazy to think that venal Hollywood would hold onto this young man contractually until he fills out a bear-ish frame and with the most talented writers and directors and makeup artists go on… to make… more episodes… of the greatest show on Earth?
The last moment of the film is the best moment of the film. Earlier, young Tony balked at Uncle Dickie offering him a pinky swear – like he was too mature for that baby shit – but now, that callback – an imagined pinky swear with Uncle Dickie – is weighted with portent and legacy and irony.
That original pinky swear was Tony’s promise to AVOID crime — and now, it is his entry INTO it. To add to the power of this moment, Woke Up This Morning slides in. Then, the final slam to our senses, as Christopher Moltisanti narrates a final callback: “That’s the guy. My uncle Tony. The guy I went to hell for.”
Righteous goombah overload!!
So there you have it, Movie Maniacs. The Top 5 Bottom 5 things about THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK…
Y’know, I could be wrong – but you know I’m right!