You don’t have to know the whole “Sopranos” series to get “Many Saints of Newark,” but it wouldn’t hurt to know a little. I suppose you’re a fan anyway if you’re going to a movie theater– it should be seen on a big screen– to see David Chase and Alan Taylor’s terrific prequel to the hit HBO series.
Last night’s premiere at the Beacon Theater in New York was for the Tribeca Film Festival and featured the great movie mobster Robert DeNiro (with partner Jane Rosenthal) giving welcoming remarks. The Beacon, with its ornate gold leaf interior, was the perfect place for everyone to return to life post-pandemic. The audience was dotted with former “Soprano’s” actors including Stevie van Zandt, Edie Falco, and Joey “Pants” Pantoliano.
Chase, who created the series, and Taylor, who directed the movie, gave a brief introduction and then it was off we go.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is not just an episode of a TV show. It’s a carefully thought out backstory that still takes time to delineate characters and establish the situation. Unlike a lot of TV series made into movies, it doesn’t start with the familiar theme music. “Saints” is an all new proposition. And it’s utterly captivating.
Here’s a little spoiler: it opens with a narration by Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti in the series. As he speaks from the grave, we learn about his family, and their relationship to the Sopranos. Christopher is not yet born but we met his father, Dickie, played by Alessandro Nivola, and Dickie’s father (Ray Liotta). It’s their drama that catalyzes the movie.
There’s a lot to unpack, but where Chase is taking us is how Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) — who is a child in the 1960s — goes from chubby goof off to psychotic yet charming mob captain. It’s quite a story. Tony’s own father (Jon Bernthal) is a non starter. So Tony is mentored by Dickie, who is good looking, himself charming, unfaithful and cluelessly psychotic on his own. Got that?
Alessandro Nivola plays the role with everything he’s got. It’s the performance of a lifetime, definitely deserving of an Oscar nomination. Despite being surrounded by a dozen or more top notch actors, Nivola carries the film on his back. Whether he’s in scenes with Liotta, or the amazing Vera Farmiga (as his percolating mother Livia), or Uncle Junior (the intense Corey Stoll), Nivola is the center of attention. Dickie Molitsanti is a lightning rod, a leading man in his own soap opera who is completely crazy and okay with it.
Dickie is a lover and he’s also very violent. One thing you forget in the opening moments is that these people will kill each other without thinking twice. When Dickie’s misdeeds grow quickly, he tells his imprisoned uncle (also Ray Liotta, who I hope got paid twice for his great work) that he wants to start doing good deeds to ameliorate all the bad in his life. There is one side scenario Dickie gets involved with — coaching blind kids playing softball — that is sheer genius not just from the writing but from how Nivola plays it. (It’s almost like a Woody Allen extracomic sequence.)
Chase could have made these characters cartoonish. Instead they come off organically. The production design, costumes, sets, cinematography are subtly accurate shades of the 60s and 70s, which gives the movie its gravity. That Chase can find laughs in the violence is what makes the whole “Sopranos” gestalt work. The characters are unaware of any other way of life than this brutal episode of “Survivor” in which the game just keeps ratcheting up another notch. And young Tony is just taking it in, as sort of a demented Luke Skywalker, until one day it will all be his.
All of this mayhem in Newark by the way is set against the rising of an African American crime boss, Harold McBrayer, played with ferocity by Leslie Odom, Jr. Harold starts out working for Dickie, learns so much he becomes his rival in every respect. If you thought Odom posed a problem for Alexander Hamilton in the musical as Aaron Burr, watch him now. Then there’s a whole set of super supporting players, from Michela di Rossi (sensational, sexy) to John Magaro as young Silvio, Billy Magnussen (unrecognizable and hilarious as a nascent Paulie Walnuts), and Gabriella Piazza as Dickie’s blissfully ignorant wife.
“Saints” opens in theaters and on HBO Max, but really, try and see it in a theater. It’s a movie. It’s a really good one. I can’t recall having such a good time.
More tomorrow about the premiere, the after party, and how the LA guests lived through New York humidity.