- Sopranos nostalgia
- Great performances
- Great character development
- Solid direction
- Great themes of family and destiny
- Some not-so-favorable performances
- Slightly meandering plot
- Doesn't work on its own without watching the original series
“Newark” is a nostalgic but not quite groundbreaking prequel with great acting and an engaging plot that digs deep into the Sopranos mythology.
Young Anthony Soprano is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark, N.J., history, becoming a man just as rival gangsters start to rise up and challenge the all-powerful DiMeo crime family. Caught up in the changing times is the uncle he idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti, whose influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss, Tony Soprano.
Anything bound or connected to the words “The Sopranos” is bound to have a lot of anticipation behind it as well as a lot of hype to live up to in front of it. Even if it does go without saying to the general audience reading this review, there was television before “The Sopranos” and there was television after The Sopranos. It is arguably one of the greatest television drams of all time, forever defining and redefining “prestige television”. Without Sopranos, there is no Breaking Bad, no Mad Men, no Boardwalk Empire, even – dare I say – no Game of Thrones. It Is an understatement to say David Chase’s “The Many Saints of Newark” (smoothly directed by Sopranos regular Alan Taylor) did not have a lot of unfair hype to live up to as a prequel.
The film begins with a very familiar voice (fan service but good fan service) introducing us to the Dimeo crime family in the good ‘ol days of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, terrific), the father of Sopranos favorite Christopher Moltisanti, is a Dimeo soldier who awaits his father “Hollywood Dick” Molitsanti (Ray Liotta in a hokey side of his dual performance) and his beautiful Italian bride Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). “Hollywood Dick” is loud, quick-to-anger and obnoxious, unlike his son Dickie who in another life, could have actually been a real “saint” of Newark (we’ll talk more about that later). In the midst of internal strife, we also have Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr, also terrific), a black man who serves as an associate of Dickie that collects debts for him. Since this is the late 60s, the Newark riots of 1967 (caused by the unlawful police beating of a black man, John William Smith) serves as a backdrop to the ensuing tension between Dickie and Harold.
After a surprising deadly turn of events, Dickie falls in love with his father’s wife Giuseppina and promptly makes her his side-piece (his comare). This leads into the second half of the film (early 1970s) which introduces the film’s most looming and influential character – a young Tony Soprano. Tony is seen throughout the first half of the film as an impressionable young boy who serves as a spiritual “nephew” to Dickie, witnessing the riots and strife of Newark through a young boy’s eyes. In the film’s second half, he is a spunky high school teenager helmed by a great debut performance by Michael Gandolfini, James Gandolfini’s son. During this time, Dickie has gained a friendship with his uncle – the imprisoned, cool-headed, zen-like Sally Moltisanti (the great part of Ray Liotta’s dual performance). It is through Sally that Dickie realizes the man he could be – a saint that serves others and never even crosses the path of the mob life. This is exemplified in a touching vision where Dickie is seen at his alt-day job, serving as a baseball coach to a deaf baseball youth team. The relationship between Dickie and Tony serve as the emotional core of the film’s story. Dickie wants to keep Tony out of trouble and on the right path but knows some things are inevitable. He has to decide if he is to take uncle Sally’s advice, be a true saint and keep Tony out of “this thing of ours” or embrace the cursed destiny that is of the Dimeo family and invite his young nephew to his own moral damnnation. The answer, as obvious as it may seem, is not as easy to figure out as “Newark” plays its hand close to its chest while revealing some dark discoveries by its despairing end.
“Newark” works very well as a feature-length “Sopranos” episode but is unfortunately not as groundbreaking as a film that stands on its own. While the Godfather II-like dynamic between Dickie and Tony is a great cinematic sight to witness, there are many other fraying parts of the plot that lead nowhere or come off as slightly contrived. The forbidden love between married Dickie and mistress Giuseppina falls flat as the relationship isn’t as exciting or compelling as the film seems to think it is. Also, there’s the issue of Harold’s character: here we have a central black character (a rarity in the Sopranos universe) that rises to serve as a worthy antagonist to Dickie’s character, both men becoming intertwined in the other’s life more than they ever imagined. However, if one steps back, they would possibly place Harold’s character as a weak window to connect racial tensions as a backdrop to the center storyline. During some asides, we follow Harold through ups and downs – trying to make it a white man’s world, contributing to the Newark riot, trying his best to stay above water while being hunted and being condescended by his wife during pillow talk about being a negro that has unrealistic hustler dreams. All of this is good and all but by the time we get to the film’s surprising conclusion, it all adds up to inserting a character that probably shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Harold is a limited connecting piece to racial tensions of 1960s Newark, which aside from a late-in-the-game love triangle subplot, the film does not really know what else to do with his character. It’s a shame because Odom Jr’s performance is right up there with Nivola and Gandolfini’s.
Another cross the film has to bear are its mix of great and terrible side performances. Corey Stoll nails it as a young, temperamental (and racist) Johnny Soprano – his pathetic foils serving as great comedic effect. Joey Diaz delivers some laughs as Buddha however Billy Magnussen unfortunately serves as a forgettable young Paulie Walnuts (I legit did not know he was Paulie until I was writing this review – that should say something). John Magaro also gives a horrible, over-the-top impression of Silvio Dante (I don’t know if this was due to Alan Taylor or David Chase’s direction but this is easily the worst performance of the film). Vera Farmiga is great as a younger Livia Soprano (the best scene being between her and Gandolfini where they discuss her possibly taking antidepressants) and Jon Bernthal is commendable as a younger Johnny Soprano. The best quality about Michael Gandolfini’s performance as the young titular character is that he uses his natural charisma to bring young Tony to life – the best living homage there can be to his beloved thespian of a father.
“Newark” works best when it is considered as a lost feature-length Sopranos episode (to be compared with the likes of season three classic “…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power”). On its own as a motion picture, its power may not be as heavy on those who aren’t Soprano-savvy. The film is not exactly groundbreaking as a whole but it serves a great additional chapter to the Sopranos mythology. Loose plot notwithstanding, there are great performances (in high contrast to the bad ones) and captivating relationships/characters at the center of “Newark” that outshine all of its shortcomings. The prequel also (possibly) serves as a nice vision of things to come as it’s been stated that David Chase himself is interested in exploring other storylines within the deep mythology of the Sopranos universe.