If you were alive at 10pm Eastern in the US on June 10, 2007, and not living under a rock, you were about to witness, after 6 brilliant seasons, the last few seconds of the suspenseful, climactic finale of one of the best, most seminal television series, The Sopranos, on HBO. We didn't know it at the time, but it was probably the last time millions of us would watch appointment television together. The aura of suspense, waiting in eager anticipation each week for the next episode to air, and the ability to savor and discuss each episode at length, was soon to be a lost art in the era of instant gratification streaming, binge-watching a whole season that had "dropped" all at once, playing the next episode automatically in a Pavlovian response as soon as the credits roll, like a child with no impulse control.
Tony Soprano, played by the late, great James Gandolfini, sat in the diner eating onion rings with his wife Carmela (the superb Edie Falco) and son AJ (Robert Iler) with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" playing on the jukebox. Every time the diner door would open, the bell on the door would ding, and Tony would look up. His daughter Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler), after several unsuccessful parallel parking attempts that kept ratcheting up the suspense, was about to enter. The bell dinged, Tony looked up and the screen went dark. WTF, Madonne?! The whole nation gasped. How could the cable transmission have cut out now of all possible moments? For the longest 10 seconds in TV history, people all over were banging their cable boxes and TV sets to see what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, everything was absolutely right. It was a planned "cut to black", and the end credits soon rolled. That brilliant, audacious, ballsy, infamous coda by creator David Chase became the stuff of TV legend, and an already legendary show entered a stratospheric pantheon.
Since that Sunday night 14 years ago, the question of Tony's fate has hung in the air, and Chase has not given in yet to the temptation to give any answers and let the audience down easy. No sequels or specials. Nothin'. Fuhgeddaboutit. But finally there's a prequel, or to use the parlance of the currently ubiquitous superhero genre, an origin story.
"The Many Saints of Newark" released in theaters on Friday and simultaneously on HBO Max. It is set 40 years before the events of the TV series, starting in 1967. Obviously, none of the actors from the series are here, except the first frame begins in a graveyard with a voiceover in the distinct nasal tones of the series actor Michael Imperioli speaking as Tony's nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, from beyond the grave. (After 14 years, the statute of limitations on spoilers from the TV series has expired 😀). He introduces us to his dad, Gentleman Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) who is the real father figure that a very young Tony looks up to. (Moltisanti, by the way, translates from the Italian as the "many saints" of the title). Tony's real father, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal) is a largely remote, and soon to be absent due to incarceration, figure. Dickie's own father, 65 year old Hollywood Dick Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, a great and almost must-have addition to any mob movie) has just returned from Italy with a young, voluptuous lady friend Giuseppina (Michela de Rossi). Dickie is running a numbers operation as the de-facto head of the DiMeo family, and one of his associates is a black guy Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), a rare entity in a sea of Italians, and the butt of explicit and implicit racist comments. All our favorite characters from the series are here in their younger avatars - Corrado "Junior" Soprano (Corey Stoll), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), and of course the superbly named Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola). It's like being back at a family reunion, albeit a highly violent, dysfunctional family no doubt.
Weaving in the real race riots in Newark at the time, when National Guard troops and armored vehicles patrolled the streets of Newark, seems an especially deft touch for a young audience living through racially charged times in the wake of George Floyd in the US today a half century later. In one scene, Dickie is waved thru by the cops with the comment "Don't worry, he's a white guy". As the action shifts to 1971, Tony now a teen, becomes increasingly influenced by his uncle, and begins to emulate him at school and beyond by committing petty crimes. This teen avatar is played by James Gandolfini's real life son Michael. The similarity in looks, and the fact that he was the one who had found his father lying dead in his hotel room in 2013, adds a level of pathos to our viewing experience. We now know the inexorable and inevitable journey's end the real and reel Tony were on. Last, we have Livia Soprano, Tony's mother, who was played with such hauteur by the late Nancy Marchand in the series, and whose fraught relationship with Tony was the psychological underpinning of the show. Tony's anxieties, insecurities, and explosive rage are inextricably linked to this most Oedipal of relationships, Here she is played by Vera Farmiga, another formidable actress. We get a real sense of what drives her to become the mother she is and her outsize formative influence on Tony's character and nature.
This is no "The Godfather" (1972) or even "Goodfellas" (1990), but any mob movie would pale in comparison to those classics. At a running time of exactly 2 hours, it feels a bit rushed to cover the full spectrum of the series, and its rich tapestry of characters, and thus lacks the epic feel and grandeur. But keeping together the original writing team from the series of Chase and Lawrence Konner, and the director of several episodes, Alan Taylor as the director of the movie, maintains the DNA of the series. For mob movie buffs, starved for so long, it's like a comforting midnight refrigerator raid a la Tony for a mouthful of "gabagool".
October 2, 2021