By Don Mexlar
I don’t make movies. So I’m not about to write a review criticizing The Many Saints of Newark, the prequel to The Sopranos depicting the life of Dickie Moltisanti, Christopher’s father, from 1967 to the mid-1970s. And I’m certainly not going to judge a story whose plot follows three main characters: Dickie, Harold—who is Black and begins as Dickie’s associate before starting his own, rival crime organization—and young Tony Soprano, who is looking for somebody, anybody, to be a good parental figure.
No, I’m here because I’ve been thinking about Saints since I saw it. Seeing Newark of lore depicted on the screen was a dream. Those historic, traumatic summer days of 1967. The row houses and the now-bulldozed projects. The miserable Italian-American men of mid-century “wanting,” as Ray Liotta’s Sally Moltisanti tells Dickie—wanting and suffering because of their wanting. What do they want? Control? Over women. Over their lives. Over the way they are seen by others. Rispetto, Onore—maybe something that all men throughout history have wanted. It’s certainly not just an Italian thing. Harold wants the same. I’m writing today because, for all its faults, it was a great story that left me wanting more. More about the characters, and more time in the imagined world of Newark in the 1970s.
But what does the movie want? Does it want to tell us that Tony changed from a sensitive, smart young man to a sociopath because he was not parented by anyone with patience? Or that white America is profoundly and irreversibly corrupt? Maybe it wants us to see that human beings are not set and it’s the choices we make that shape us? Or maybe it’s coincidences out of our control that determine what we do?
Dickie’s uncle says he’s a “jazz nut” but also “a murderer, so what do I know?” Should we discount what he says because he’s a murderer? What do I know? David Chase’s Sopranos was always about what happens when we lack tools to productively face the emotions that we all feel. Worse, when we’ve got fantasies and expectations that don’t pan out—as we all do—we need those tools to keep from letting disappointment hurt ourselves and those around us. Dickie lacks those tools. So does Junior. My favorite scene in the movie is where, for a moment—perhaps the only moment in the life of the character—Livia seems like she might be about to get there: A school counselor reminds Livia—who initially feigns forgetting—that Tony remembers her reading to him as a child, telling him what the word “ingot” means. Inspired at this story of her own good parenting, Livia works off of that. She dresses up for Tony, prepares him a meal. But just as quick she abandons the effort at a snarky word from her adolescent son about her mental health. She lacked the tools too. We are frail creatures and we need grace and to be shown patience, to build up a reserve so that we can show patience in return. Livia’s reserves, like most of the characters in this movie, have run dry.
And what do we, the viewers, want? As with any prequel, we want to see Tony Soprano turn into Darth Vader. Since this is not a movie review, I will give one spoiler: we do not get what we want in this film. Arguably, we see young Tony primed to consider being open to becoming the type of person who we will eventually recognize as Tony Soprano but this movie does not nearly get us there. I also wanted more of Harold, played by Leslie Odom Jr., whose arc is perhaps the most developed (and whose motivations seem the most complex) despite the film’s clear focus on the Soprano/Moltisanti families. Perhaps we will get more in the sequel to the prequel?
I’d say the funniest part of the movie was when Harold drives up to the club to take revenge on the killing of his cousin Cyril. There’s a quick shot where a Volkswagen bus barrels around a corner into the back of a parked car and, like a decorative gas fireplace in Tony Soprano’s house, bursts into CGI flames. Did it need to catch fire? If this film were made in 1974 it would not have caught fire, but what do I know.
So this is not really a movie review. I didn’t summarize the plot very well (Dickie is destructive toward those in his life, Tony becomes disillusioned, Harold decides he doesn’t answer to the Italians any more). I don’t want to criticize the movie because I truly did enjoy it, so I’m not going to point out that the script is stilted in spots. And only in spots—there are some fantastic lines like, for example, when the counselor asks young Tony what he and his dad talk about, Tony answers: “the lawn.” And it seems rude to criticize somebody else’s performance, so I’m not going to highlight how time has not been kind to Ray Liotta and how it seemed like he was reading his lines for the first time from cue cards. I’m here to praise The Many Saints of Newark. I’d watch it again, and I’d watch a sequel to the prequel that shows us really this time how Tony Soprano became such a bad guy. And, for anybody who lives in Newark, grew up in New Jersey, or likes The Sopranos, go and see it. On a scale of one to five, I give this movie three doses of Elavil.
Editor’s note: Check out this historical review of the film co-written by Rutgers-Newark professors Whitney Strub and Mary Rizzo for the Washington Post.
Featured photo by Charles David Photography