‘The Many Saints of Newark’ lacks that old Sopranos bada-bing
The Many Saints of Newark, the new film by David Chase which premiered recently in theaters and on HBO, comes with the kind of promotional tailwinds of which most films can only dream. They advertised it as “a Sopranos story,” a vague way of saying it’s a prequel that presents a spicy piece of history within the multifaceted Sopranos universe. Sopranos fans were excited, even if people in general met it with a shrug
Premiering in 1999, The Sopranos hit at just the right cultural moment to bring stories about organized crime into the 21st Century. Big, loud, violent street guys dealt with modern anxieties through therapy amid the pervading late-century malaise of arriving at the end of things, our best days receding behind us. Maybe that’s why the show has recently found a new audience among struggling millennials. Chase has stuffed The Many Saints of Newark with fun Easter eggs for hardcore fans. But ultimately it comes up short on what made The Sopranos memorable in the first place.
A posthumous voiceover by Christopher Moltisanti, Tony’s drug-addled protege, informs us that we’re seeing the late sixties era tale of Dickie Moltisanti, his legendary mobster father, and how Dickie led a teenage Tony Soprano into the life of crime. It turns out that’s not enough to justify an entire film, even if you already know how the characters end up and want to see where and how they got started in “this thing of ours.”
Alessandro Nivoli capably plays Dickie as a mob enforcer with a charismatic twinkle in his eye who gets involved with Giuseppina, his Dad’s Italian wife. Suffice to say, it doesn’t end well. The weird Oedipal implications are very much in keeping with Chase’s fascination with the murkier waters of the unconscious, but we need to actually care about and believe in the depth of their love for the film to provide something more than a chance to hang out with younger versions of the crew as they eat baked ziti and banter at Satriale’s.
There are a couple of charming moments, though the use of a song from Van Morrison’s transcendent Astral Weeks tries way too hard to supply the swooning subtext. Dickie and Giuseppina’s relationship doesn’t contain the romantic gravitas that leads towards the messy denouement. No spoilers, but Chase intends for failure of the relationship to be far more heartbreaking than it actually is. It’s not, to use another phrase from the show, a case of all-consuming amour fou gone horribly wrong. Instead, it’s what happens when a pissed-off hoodlum suddenly acts out. The story fails at an implied critique of toxic masculinity precisely because it mistakes that kind of fallout for tragic grandeur.
The other major part of the plot concerns the Newark race riots, alluded to at various points in The Sopranos. I didn’t know much about them and was very curious what Chase, who understands history of the place very well, would have to say. Apparently, not much. The film does respect its Black characters, more than the other characters mostly do, taking us into some of the revolutionary discontent in the air at that time, including a fiery performance from the revolutionary proto-hip hop group The Last Poets.
Racial tensions in the city are running high, but it would have been much more intriguing to see a multi-layered exploration of how and why the riots really started. Releasing a film featuring a race riot as a major plot point after George Floyd is a gutsy and socially conscious choice, but Chase doesn’t give the moment in history a deep enough examination to provoke any meaningful response from the audience.
One of the moral tensions that The Sopranos handled so well was how it lured the audience to identify with these temperamental, uber-macho, near-sociopaths and then conscientiously subverted that sympathy, built up over the years, by showing how despite their moments of humanity and vulnerability they were really monstrous at heart. When Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi finally realizes that her counsel might be feeding into Tony’s antisocial behavior, not to mention enjoying the illicit thrill of chilling with a killer up close, it was a brilliant way to cause the audience to question its motives for watching these kinds of stories in the first place. We love the blood and guts, but we don’t want to get any of it on us.
It was very wise of Chase not to let his affection for these characters override his awareness that the audience really shouldn’t empathize or identify with them as much as they clearly did. His clear disdain for the sense of whiny victimhood that years of therapy culture have wrought didn’t mean that psychoanalysis was really just a mug’s game. The Sopranos was much more sophisticated and self-conscious than that. And it also had a few detailed points to make about political corruption in Newark.
In contrast, The Many Saints of Newark plays more like a run-of-the-mill mob flick and loses the moral tensions that made The Sopranos groundbreaking. It’s a difficult balance for any story to maintain, and to some extent Saints suffers from the inevitable comparison to its illustrious source material. Even so, the stories that Saints wanted to tell just aren’t strong enough to stand on their own; they need the Sopranos legacy to prop them up. To borrow a phrase from one of Uncle Junior’s passive-aggressive digs at testy Tony, which is included in one of the film’s best Sopranos allusions, The Many Saints of Newark lacks the makings of a varsity athlete.