'The Many Saints of Newark' Is an Unnecessary but Welcome Return to 'The Sopranos' Directed by Alan Taylor

Starring Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Michela de Rossi, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll
'The Many Saints of Newark' Is an Unnecessary but Welcome Return to 'The Sopranos' Directed by Alan Taylor
Over two decades ago, David Chase introduced us to The Sopranos, which, anchored by James Gandolfini's seismic performance, changed the television medium forever. Its six seasons were so complete, so utterly whole in their dramatic feats, that a return to the fictional universe of New Jersey was difficult to justify — doubly so after Gandolfini's 2013 death.

But Chase and company couldn't keep away. So now we have The Many Saints of Newark, a late-'60s and early '70s-set prequel that focuses on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the father of series mainstay Christopher. Dickie is dead by the time The Sopranos is set, and while its characters often spoke of him in mythical terms, underneath his charismatic exterior he's just as prone to the same vicious cycles of sin as his television counterparts.

Specifically, Many Saints is concerned with Dickie's struggles with both his father "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti (an excellent Ray Liotta) and his father's new wife Giuseppina (Michela de Rossi), as well as the growing rift between him and his associate Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.).

What's more, Chase and director Alan Taylor got themselves an uncannily similar son in Michael Gandolfini, whose performance as a younger Tony also echoes the character's future son A.J. In between all this, the film makes time for younger versions of Livia, Johnny Boy, Paulie, Silvio, Big Pussy, Junior and a few others. All embody the characters well, except for John Magaro's Silvio, who dives into caricature. Even still, it's a lot of plot. One gets the feeling it's chafing at its cinematic constraints, wishing it was a miniseries or a full season of TV.

Many Saints shares many of the same thematic concerns as the show, and often touches on it from a different perspective through Harold and his struggles to establish dominance separate from the Mafia. The film often struggles to separate itself from its source material in both ways that yield rich dramatic ground (the final line) and those which come off as fan service ("He'll never have the makings of a varsity athlete"). Another standout aspect is the soundtrack, which, given its time period, could have easily relied on rock clichés, but is instead dotted with artists like Gil Scott-Heron.

Many Saints stands on its own in the sense that it's a solid crime movie divorced from the legacy of The Sopranos, but watching it without that context robs it of its potency. It's unnecessary but not unwelcome. (Warner Bros.)