This post contains spoilers for The Many Saints of Newark, which is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, as well as for various plot developments on The Sopranos that are relevant to discussing the film.
“I try to be good.” —Tony Soprano
The Sopranos, you may have heard, began life as an idea for a movie David Chase wanted to make about his difficult relationship with his own mother, because he was fed up with television and hoped to give the big screen a try. Early on, he fantasized about Anne Bancroft playing the character who became Livia, and Robert De Niro as her son. Even when HBO ordered a Sopranos pilot, Chase half hoped it wouldn’t go to series, so that he could shoot additional material on his own and take the finished product to Cannes. But men plan, and God laughs, and the joke on Chase was that the script he wanted to use to escape TV forever instead wound up transforming the small screen — and, in the process, made an endangered species out of the kinds of midbudget movies for adults that Chase had long dreamed of making.
Among the many things about The Sopranos that shook the pop-culture firmament was the way that Chase and his collaborators — including Many Saints co-writer Lawrence Konner and the film’s director, Alan Taylor — simultaneously ran away from the things television was known for while leaning into the medium’s strengths. It was morally ambiguous and visually adventurous. But it was also intensely episodic — much more than you may remember, given how so many of its imitators are relentlessly (and often tediously) serialized — even as it stacked one individual story on top of another, so that all that time spent with characters like Tony and Carmela made us feel as if we knew them as intimately as members of our own families.
Now, 14 years after The Sopranos cut to black, we return to Tony’s world in The Many Saints of Newark. But things are very different, within and without that world. The story takes place decades before the events of the show, with the action split between 1967 and 1971. It’s an era when wiseguys wore sharply tailored suits with pocket squares rather than tracksuits with sweat stains, before white flight transformed the film’s titular city. These are the glory days Tony liked to talk about with Dr. Melfi, the ones he was too young to really be a part of. He came in at the end; this is what he was told was the exciting middle.
But time functions on more than one axis in Many Saints. This is a feature-length film rather than a season of television, and one where Chase was adamant about the running time being two hours or less. Though the movie has a few scenes that get to ramble in that familiar Sopranos way, like Janice’s confirmation or Johnny Boy’s homecoming, for the most part it is trying to pack a lot of characters and incident into a compact frame. As a result, the script has to use a lot of shorthand. It is at once meant to be a self-contained gangster tale about Dickie Moltisanti and something of a Tony Soprano origin story, with the two tied together because Dickie’s presence in, and then departure from, Tony’s life shaped so much about him. The Tony parts of the movie work well because we know him and a lot of these other characters, and can fill in the blanks left by the way the film bounces around. Because Dickie and his inner circle are new to us, that part of the film feels like it would have been better served by an additional 30 to 60 minutes. Yet it’s oddly appropriate that a movie whose central character’s most important contribution to The Sopranos is his absence — from both Tony’s life and from his son Christopher’s — often feels like it’s missing key moments.
We begin, in fact, with Christopher Moltisanti — his voice, anyway — in a Lincoln in the Bardo-style prologue at the cemetery where he was laid to rest after Tony murdered him in the classic “Kennedy and Heidi” episode of the series(*). The camera glides past various tombstones, the occupant of each telling their tale of woe in overlapping voiceover, before we hear the familiar nasal tones of Michael Imperioli as Christopher, saying, “I told them when I got here, I explored the criminal lifestyle.” Moltisanti, he explains, is a religious name (the “many saints” of the film’s title), “and still I’m fucked.” Imperioli’s delivery is flatter than when he played Christopher years ago, but that was as a living man who still had goals and dreams; this Christopher is in whatever The Sopranos‘ conception of the afterlife has turned out to be (as opposed to the vision of hell he had when Matt Bevilacqua and Sean Gismonte shot him in Season Two). He is not happy — a few moments later, he will recall that after Tony killed him, “he gave my wife and baby his pocket change” — but there’s also no fight left in him. He is a ghost, still aware of all mortal concerns but detached from them, dryly introducing us to this very different version of Tony and the Jersey Family. The Sopranos always had room for mysticism, whether it was Tony’s parallel reality adventures as Kevin Finnerty after Junior shot him, or Big Pussy’s ghost appearing briefly in a mirror at Livia’s wake. And Many Saints, even more than The Sopranos itself, is about the consequences of choosing to do things that are, to borrow a phrase used by Christopher’s great-uncle Sal in the film, not God’s favorite. So this feels like an acceptably surreal point of re-entry.
(*) The creative team took a while to figure out how to open the story. At one point, they brought in Edie Falco to play Carmela Soprano; at another, Tony Sirico as the elderly Paulie Walnuts. This ultimately wound up being the version that made the most sense, given that Christopher’s father is the protagonist.
From there, we dial back roughly 40 years from the night that Tony Soprano snuffed the life out of Christopher Moltisanti in a ditch along Rt. 23. It is 1967. What will eventually be known as the Soprano family is at the time still the DiMeo Family(*), and Tony (played at this point by William Ludwig) is a sweet little kid hanging around with his beloved “Uncle” Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), going down to the port of Newark to greet Dickie’s father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), as he returns from an overseas vacation with his new, young Italian bride Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). Dickie is a blank slate for us. On the show, Tony spoke of him in reverent tones, but Tony also had a tendency to romanticize the past. And Christopher, as we’ll see here, was too young when his father was murdered to remember him. So the first impression Alessandro Nivola gives is crucial. He instantly lives up to the legend, and to his nickname as Gentleman Dickie: slick and smooth, but also emotionally genuine in a way that will so often elude the wiseguys of his son’s generation. You understand why Tony would idolize this man, and why his death would leave such a chasm in young Tony’s spirit.
(*) When The Sopranos begins, Jackie Aprile (seen here as a teenager helping Tony hijack an ice cream truck and later getting beat up by Tony at a phone booth) is acting boss of the Family, with real boss Eckley DiMeo serving a long prison sentence. Chase soon lost interest in the idea of a boss above Tony, even one behind bars, and the show stopped mentioning him; when I asked Chase about Eckley years later, he shrugged and said, “He died in prison.” But Chase himself winds up briefly playing Eckley in Many Saints; you can see him talking to Johnny and some other wiseguys at the funeral that takes place after Harold’s assault on Dickie’s nightclub.
Dickie is instantly smitten with his new stepmother, a state of affairs that seems to elude both Hollywood Dick and Dickie’s own wife, Joanne (Gabriella Piazza). As we know from both the show and this movie, though, a certain amount of willful ignorance is required to function as a Mob wife. We see Giuseppina struggling to fit into America — her recounting of her English lessons to Hollywood Dick feels like a hat-tip to the “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday” scene from The Godfather — and Dickie growing increasingly protective of her. But is he acting that way because he is — as he clearly thinks, based on his later conversations with his uncle — a good person trying to do his best with the bad life he was born into, or simply because he’s jealous of his father? In the Sopranos universe, it’s always safest to bet on human weakness.
Many Saints gradually introduces the rest of its ensemble. Dickie controls the numbers racket in Newark on behalf of the DiMeos, aided by Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). The numbers are particularly popular in the Black parts of town, and we see Harold slowly grow to resent having to take orders from a white representative of a white business. Meanwhile, we get to meet a lot of new performers playing familiar roles when the story swings by the church where young Janice Soprano (played at this age by Mattea Conforti, and later by Alexandra Intrator) has just had her confirmation. The event is attended by, among others, her parents Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal) and Livia (Vera Farmiga), her Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), and young wiseguys Silvio Dante (John Magaro), Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnusen), and Big Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola). As was the case on the show, there is a fairly wide range of performance styles here. John Magaro is going very big in his recreation of Stevie Van Zandt’s mannerisms as the young — and already balding, in case you ever wondered if that pompadour on the show was meant to be real — Silvio; but Van Zandt’s performance was at least two-thirds caricature to begin with, and Magaro is hilarious. Jon Bernthal, meanwhile, isn’t really trying to imitate the version of Johnny Boy we saw briefly in a few flashback episodes, but is just figuring out what it would be like to have been married to Livia for so long. (“He’s always leaving,” Bernthal observed of Johnny Boy in the film. “He’s never in a place where he wants to be.”) In between, you have Vera Farmiga, who beautifully evokes Nancy Marchand’s Livia even as the performance feels completely human and three-dimensional. (She’s also really funny throughout, like the crocodile tears she feigns after Johnny Boy is sentenced to a short prison stretch.) And Corey Stoll neatly evokes the Uncle Junior we knew from the series — and gets to repeat famous lines like “Your sister’s cunt” and the insult about Tony not having the makings of a varsity athlete — without feeling like he’s just doing a Dominic Chianese impression.
Though Harold periodically stops by Satriale’s pork store or Dickie’s base of operations, the swanky Silhouette nightclub, he is very much an outsider in his boss’ world. He endures hostile glares and racial slurs whenever he appears on DiMeo turf, and even the usually friendly Dickie talks down to him after Harold admits to having trouble dealing with the Black Saints street gang. But the humiliating motivational tactic works, and soon we see Harold gunning down Black Saints member Leon Overall at an Army recruiting center where Leon, like so many Black men of this era, was looking to escape perilous circumstances on the home front by enlisting to serve overseas. Later, Harold’s girlfriend Queen Isola (Patina Miller) will laugh at his fantasies about going to Vietnam himself and winning the Medal of Honor. She understands that the military, like the Mob, views Black men as cheap and expendable labor and little more, and calls Harold “a riot” — a prophetic word choice given what’s about to happen to their home city.
Here, the movie pauses its fictional storylines for a bit to observe some of the events that led to the Newark uprising in July of 1967 — particularly the arrest and abuse of cab driver John W. Smith by racist Newark cops. Both the riots themselves and years-in-the-making tension between the city’s Black citizens and its white establishment powers are bigger and messier than Many Saints has room to fully dramatize. But the film finds the right ugly and unnerving tone to depict both Smith’s arrest and the government response to the protests that followed. Harold has not fancied himself an especially political person, but as he wanders the ruined streets and sees a mother crying over the body of a son gunned down by the cops, it’s as if he is finally seeing the world for what it is, rather than what he’d convinced himself it was. That level of enlightenment is rare for any Sopranos-related character, much less a Black man in a universe that rarely gave characters of color their own inner lives. And if Harold largely uses that enlightenment as an excuse for more violence — first hurling a Molotov cocktail at police, then starting a war against Dickie and the DiMeos when he returns to Newark in 1971 after a brief exile to avoid the Leon Overall investigation — he at least finally understands who he is and how the world looks at him.
While the riots lasted several days, and eventually led to National Guard troops and tanks rolling through the streets, life in other parts of Newark more or less went on as normal. This was already depicted in the Season One Sopranos episode “Down Neck,” which has some scenes recreated here, like Tony witnessing Johnny Boy’s arrest at an amusement park. And we see more Moltisanti family drama playing out in a way that eventually ties back into the riots. Giuseppina is feeling increasingly unhappy and isolated as the wife of the cruel Hollywood Dick, who kicks her down the stairs for the sin of leaving her douchebag in the shower. (Or perhaps for the sin of delivering a very funny rejoinder to his question about whether the Venus de Milo would have done the same thing: “She can’t use a douchebag! She’s handicapped!”) “Maybe I lied to myself” she soon confesses to Dickie, about coming to America for anything other than Hollywood Dick’s money, joining a long list of Sopranos characters who deceive themselves for material gain. She passionately kisses him, perhaps hoping it will encourage him to rescue her from his father’s abusive clutches, but the lip-lock does not have the intended effect at first. Dickie thinks of himself as a good guy, and he’s been raised in a culture with strict rules about things like kissing your father’s wife. The sad, telling look she gives him as he recoils suggests a woman who finally understands just how rigid the prison walls are around her.
In this case, though, she is saved not by Dickie’s good instincts, but his bad ones. When father and son sit in the carport preparing to brave the riot-torn streets to pick up Dick’s new blood thinner from the local Rexall drugstore, Dickie tries speaking up in Giuseppina’s defense. Dick is unimpressed, having seen the way his son looks at her, and also believing that it’s his right as a man to say and do whatever he wants to his own wife. He dismissively refers to both her and Dickie’s late mother as “sluts,” triggering the kind of explosive, homicidal rage from Dickie that we know all too well from the adult Tony Soprano. The difference, though, is that where Tony rarely regretted beating, say, Ralphie to death, Dickie is horrified that he’s bashed his father’s brains against the steering wheel. His conception of self is so wildly at odds with who he actually is that the world briefly stops making sense for him. Then again, the world around him at this moment is darkly absurd, as Dickie finds out when he’s stopped by the National Guard on the way to disposing of his dad’s corpse — still next to him in the front seat — in a warehouse fire, only to be waved on through because he’s a white guy.
Dickie’s guilt over killing his father inspires him to do penance by visiting Dick’s twin brother Sal (also played by Liotta) in the prison where he’s been incarcerated for decades ever since killing a made guy in their own Family. Where Dick was flashy and obnoxious, Sal is reserved to an almost startling degree(*), his isolation in prison having led to interests in jazz and Buddhism. Dickie insists he’s there because “I want to do a good deed,” but almost from the jump, Sal sees through this pose. Both Moltisanti brothers turn out to be right about Dickie, who has soon taken on Giuseppina as his new goomah, installing her in her own apartment and promising to set her up with a beauty parlor business. (Her mother, like Queen Isola, did hair out of the family apartment.) As her command of English improves, she discovers that she really enjoys the word “motherfucker,” and why wouldn’t she? After all, her new sugar daddy is a step-motherfucker.
(*) Ray Liotta does some of the best, most intense work of his entire career as Sal, and the amazing thing is that he was originally just hired to play Hollywood Dick. “They were negotiating with someone else and he wanted more money than they wanted to pay him, I think,” Liotta told me. When asked to play the dual role — joining a Sopranos tradition of identical twins that includes both Phillie and Patsy Parisi and Jeannie and Joan Cusamano — Liotta said he wanted to be sure the characters would be different enough. Once he heard about Sal’s Buddhist leanings, he got into it. At a SAG panel I moderated with the cast, Nivola recalled that Liotta shot all his scenes as Dick, “then he disappeared for a few weeks. And he came back and he lost, like, 30 pounds or so. He was totally different.” It worked out wonderfully, not only because Liotta is so good in the second role, but because it only enhances the idea of Dickie visiting his uncle because he’s seeking the kind of paternal guidance he lost when he murdered Dick — assuming Dick was ever capable of offering good advice.
Dickie’s belief that he wants to be good is echoed by young Tony after he’s kicked out of Catholic school for trying to run his own numbers game. Dickie encourages his faux nephew to try harder, even insisting that they pinkie swear on it. The problem that both of them will keep running into for the rest of their lives is that temptation is everywhere and neither is strong enough to resist it. As Sal will later tell Dickie, Buddhists believe that pain comes from always wanting things. In this case, the wanting will lead both Dickie and the adult Tony to cause even more pain to others than they feel themselves.
After the first of the movie’s two stops at Holsten’s, the ice cream parlor where The Sopranos itself ended, we jump ahead four years to 1971. Tony is now a teenager, played to uncanny perfection by Michael Gandolfini. Like his onscreen mother Vera Farmiga, Gandolfini finds the perfect balance between evoking his predecessor and giving a lived-in performance conveying how different this version of the character is from the one his father played on HBO. This Tony is older and bigger than William Ludwig’s, but he’s still palpably a kid eager for the protection and approval of his mother, of Dickie, and of Johnny Boy, whose release from prison kicks off the film’s second half. Much has happened in Johnny Boy’s absence, from their neighborhood starting to integrate — which will in turn will inspire the bigoted Johnny to move his family out to the suburbs — to Dickie and Joanne finally having the son they had long hoped for. In another nod to larger spiritual forces — and ones that disapprove of so much of what these people are doing — we see that little Christopher cries whenever he’s placed in the arms of the man who will one day kill him. As an old woman at Johnny Boy’s welcome home party notes, “Some babies, when they come into the world, know all kinds of things from the other side.”
Harold is back in town, as police have lost interest in the death of Leon Overall. Where once Harold wore natty suits like Dickie, he’s now grown out his hair and opted for more Afro-centric clothes. When we catch up with him, he is watching a performance of The Last Poets, and it’s clear that he feels as if he has finally woken up. He’s offended when Dickie tries slipping him a hundred dollar bill “like I’m a fucking Pullman porter,” and seems determined to take away everything Dickie has, from the numbers business to Giuseppina.
Like a lot of the Dickie arc, the latter development feels like it needed more room to breathe, though there are a few brief moments in the 1967 section where Harold catches Giuseppina’s eye from across the room, or in the Satriale’s parking lot. The gradual erosion of Dickie and Giuseppina’s affair, on the other hand, is conveyed very efficiently. Her comfort with her new country and its language are both much stronger, and she’s confident enough to call out Dickie when she believes he never intends to actually put her in business as he’s been promising for so long.
Dickie’s ongoing quest to be good is similarly shorthanded. He tells Sal about his new role coaching beep baseball for vision-impaired children (a real version of the sport that is still played today), and we see a brief fantasy glimpse of him being praised by his players and their parents as a saint worthy of the name. But that’s about it. Mostly, he remains a bad man who does bad things, like torturing Harold’s buddy Cyril with a ratchet gun, and then standing by while Cyril is killed for the sin of knocking off Silvio’s new toupee.
As revenge, Harold and his crew attack Dickie, Johnny Boy, and friends as they’re leaving the Silhouette. Action scenes on The Sopranos tended to be frenetic and clumsy. Even when Tony performed some larger-than-life feat like fighting off two armed gunmen with his bare hands and some defensive driving, his survival was presented as something perilously close to blind luck. The shootout here has some of that, but on the whole feels cooler and more glamorous than anything from the show. When Harold enters the club, the flames of a car crash billowing behind him, it’s an incredible-looking shot that leads to a classic Sopranos-style anticlimax: Harold and Dickie stare each other down through a hole that’s been shot in the door to the club’s back room, but approaching sirens inspire Harold to flee the scene — and, essentially, the film. We see him plotting his next move with Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (a real-life criminal in a movie overflowing with fictional ones), but he’s otherwise largely absent until a mid-credits scene reveals that he won the war and got to move into one of the neighborhoods that men like Johnny Boy are fleeing. Knowing what the drug trade is going to do to cities like Newark in the coming years, it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best, and it’s not hard to imagine the DiMeos eventually blaming Harold for Dickie’s murder and going after him again.
But as Christopher says repeatedly in his narration, that’s much later. First we have to address the future of one Anthony Soprano, and the role that Dickie Moltisanti will play in Tony’s life long after his own death.
Tony, Jackie Aprile, and Artie Bucco hijack an ice cream truck to play Robin Hood and provide free treats to kids at the park. It’s not exactly harmless teenage shenanigans, but it’s mild compared to what Tony and Jackie will eventually get up to. (And more altruistic than any of the stunts A.J. Soprano will pull as a teen.) He also gets in trouble at school for stealing a test, and is forced to meet with the guidance counselor, Mrs. Jarecki (Talia Balsam). Their session is very much a prototype for his later relationship with Dr. Melfi, down to his discomfort in talking about his parents and even her pronunciation of the name Soprano. But Mrs. Jarecki receives an opportunity never granted to Melfi: She gets a few minutes alone with Livia, digging deep enough to uncover the vulnerable woman who is still lurking between the depression, narcissism, rage, and all the other traits that will one day wear her husband down to a nub and lead her to try to have her own son murdered(*).
(*) There is also, perhaps, something more sinister in the story of Livia reading Tony a book about Sutter’s Mill on a lonely night when Johnny Boy was away. “His exact words,” Mrs. Jarecki tells an unsettled Livia, “were you ‘snuggled up close.'” On the show, we occasionally saw and heard about how Livia turned to her son for the emotional support she rarely got from her philandering, oft-absent husband; this at least offers hints of something beyond that. Suffice it to say, Dr. Melfi would have held onto that story like a dog with a bone until she got all the details from this Oedipal tale. Especially since the prosthetic nose Vera Farmiga wears to resemble Nancy Marchand instead makes her look an awful lot like Edie Falco from certain angles.
It’s a great scene, and one that seems to inspire Livia (or perhaps scare her?) into making a genuine effort to be more maternal and open with Tony. She even admits that her doctor attempted to put her on the antidepressant Elavil, which Tony quickly recognizes would do his mother a world of good(*). But if Farmiga’s Livia isn’t as rigid as the one we saw Marchand play — and Farmiga gets to toss off a perfectly Marchand-esque “Oh, poor you!” at the end of the scene — she’s also not nearly flexible enough to consider the idea of mental health as a real concern for her or anyone she knows.
(*) The adult Tony needs some help from Dr. Melfi to accept the idea that his mother is depressed (among other mental health issues). But, again, he romanticizes the past and refuses to admit things he once knew.
This is a precarious, Sliding Doors-style moment for Tony Soprano. He has committed some petty crimes, and he already has a version of the famous family temper, which he unleashes on Jackie — and on new girlfriend Carmela De Angelis (Lauren DiMario), who catches a stray blow when she tries to intercede in their fight — but his soul still seems salvageable. It’s possible to imagine a reality where Dickie Moltisanti lives and is able to convince Livia — who likes and respects him far more than she does either her husband or Tony’s actual uncle — to give Elavil a try. (He dies with the pills in his pocket, inspiring her to mock him at his own funeral.) Maybe having a mother who is not projecting her own pain outward at her children is enough to keep Tony from growing into the man we know. Or even if Dickie were to fail there, maybe he could have taken Uncle Sal’s advice about the corrosive nature of the Family business, and more effectively steered Tony clear of it. We see that Tony is reluctant to participate in crime, even attempting to turn down Dickie’s gift of stolen speakers. Dickie suggests that Tony can just accept the speakers and then never steal again: “It’s that simple.” But it never is that simple. Again, as Uncle Sal says, it’s the wanting that gets you.
In the midst of all this, Dickie and Giuseppina go down the shore together, have a tryst in a restaurant bathroom, and seem as blissful as they’ve been at any point in the movie. But when Dickie reveals that he finally did get the salon for her, she can’t stop herself from confessing her affair with Harold, still not understanding the depths of her lover’s temper and how quickly it can be triggered. He attacks her, shoves her into the ocean, and holds her there until she drowns and floats away, leaving Dickie once again startled by the fact that he just murdered someone he cared deeply about.
One of the running threads of The Sopranos involved Dr. Melfi’s repeated failure to make Tony see that his criminal lifestyle was at the root of so many of his emotional problems — that he could not get well until he started acting better. She never pushed him as far as she could have, in part because she didn’t view that as within the boundaries of her role as his therapist. Uncle Sal has no such ethical concerns, though. In the movie’s emotional and thematic centerpiece scene, Dickie visits him at Christmas and reveals his latest sob story (changing it to claim Giuseppina died of pneumonia), only for Sal to again look right through him. Alluding to John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things, Sal suggests, “Maybe some of the things you choose to do aren’t God’s favorite.” Dickie takes Sal’s advice about Tony a bit too literally at first, abruptly cutting the kid out of his life and leaving him angry and confused. But it’s clear from his later conversation with Silvio that Dickie has come to recognize the moral rot that he has devoted his whole life to, and the wreckage he has left in his wake. All of this has been a mistake, including letting Tony get close enough to admire a man like himself.
The revelation comes too late to be of use to anyone, though. On his way home to bring a TV tray and other Christmas presents to Joanne and Christopher, Dickie is shot in the back of the head. In Season Four’s “For All Debts Public and Private,” Tony told Christopher that Dickie was murdered by dirty cop Barry Haydu, acting on behalf of rival wiseguy Jilly Ruffalo. Instead, the man giving the order was none other than Uncle Junior, once again aggrieved and over-entitled, resenting the fact that Livia, Johnny Boy, and Tony all look to Dickie as more a part of the family than himself, stewing over various insults (going back to a scene in the 1967 section where Dickie taunts Junior over a Paulie Walnuts joke about Junior’s goomah). The last straw is Dickie laughing at him after Junior slips and falls outside the funeral home. Dickie is far from the only one to cackle, and we know from the show that laughing at people who fall is a long-standing Soprano family tradition. But Corrado Soprano is a man whose grudges tend to grow murderous over time, and it feels fitting for both Junior as a character and this storytelling universe as a whole that Dickie should die as the result of a petty family beef, rather than a more dramatic killing at the hands of Harold(*).
(*) Lawrence Konner told me that he and Chase decided on Junior as the responsible party early on, but the struggle was in deciding his motive. “And then we just liked the idea of all this little shit,” he said, “like when he picks up Johnny from prison, and Johnny starts comparing him to Dickie.” (Also, Tony is not entirely wrong about Jilly Ruffalo’s involvement: there’s a deleted scene where Junior calls Jilly, played by Ed Marinaro, and asks him to handle this problem for him. But there’s no character named Barry Haydu in the credits, so that part was as much of a lie as Barry insisted in his final moments, before Christopher murders him in the show’s Season Four premiere.)
All of this brings us right back to Holsten’s, the past and the future rhyming with one another. Again, Tony Soprano is waiting at the ice cream parlor for someone. The last time, we saw Meadow run in but don’t know what happened as the door opened. This time, we know Dickie will not come, and we also know that a part of Tony Soprano dies in that ice cream parlor as a result of the no-show. The Tony who sat in Mrs. Jarecki’s office, or at Livia’s kitchen table, and the Tony who cried as he hurled Dickie’s speakers out his bedroom window, was still innocent enough that his life could have gone down some other path. But the Tony we see looking down on Dickie’s coffin has a very different look on his face, an expression we saw so often from James Gandolfini. He is still (as discussed in the final season’s “Remember When”) a decade away from committing his first murder — of Willie Overall, presumably related to Leon — but his fate is already sealed. You can see it on his face at the funeral parlor. And you can hear it in the familiar strains of A3’s “Woke Up This Morning” that begin to pulse as the movie offers one more surrealist touch: Dickie’s hand rising up for another pinkie swear with Tony, this time for a promise that’s the opposite of the one they’d made about Tony being good. We hear Christopher’s voice again, saying, “That’s the guy — my Uncle Tony. The guy I went to hell for.” Dickie fails to save his surrogate nephew, and in the process damns his own son.
It’s a dark note to end the movie on, but also a fan service-y one for a franchise that rarely cared about giving the fans what they wanted. The crowd at the recent New York premiere of Many Saints reportedly filled the Beacon Theater with deafening roars as soon as they recognized The Sopranos theme song. Between that and the mid-credits stinger with Harold, it would be easy to walk away from Many Saints feeling as if it’s setting up an entire Sopranos prequel universe. Maybe another film, like Michael Gandolfini’s idea of further exploring Tony and Carmela’s early romance? Maybe, as Vera Farmiga has already said she’s eager to do, an actual spinoff show? David Chase has been more agnostic on the subject. There could well be a follow-up or three to Many Saints, especially if it’s a big hit, but that wasn’t the goal of this film as it was being made.
Yes, the movie cuts more narrative corners than it should have, with both the Dickie and Tony stories. And it could definitely stand to just linger more, with us nestled as comfortably in its world as teenage Tony is between two stolen speakers as he listens to Mountain’s Leslie West wail on guitar. But in its truest emotional moments — Sal and Dickie at Christmas, Tony and then Livia with Mrs. Jarecki, Harold stumbling through the riots — it simultaneously thrilled and appalled me in the way that The Sopranos so often did. It left me wanting more — not just more scenes from this film, but more stories set around this era, with this terrific cast.
The wanting will likely bring me pain, but when it comes to The Sopranos, I can’t help it.
Some other thoughts:
* Some of the movie’s math is fuzzy when it comes to Tony’s age. On the show, his birth year is 1959, which would make him 12 in 1971. Even though Michael Gandolfini is playing younger (he was 20 when the movie was shot), his Tony is still meant to be 14 or 15. Also, Silvio and Pussy on the show are treated largely as Tony’s contemporaries, though here they’re both at least a decade older. (Though that more or less matches the age difference between James Gandolfini and both Steve Van Zandt and Vincent Pastore.)
* When we see recreations of scenes from the show, or dramatizations of things we only heard about on the show, the details are not always the same. The flashback to the Newark riots in Season One’s “Down Neck” also shows Johnny Boy and his crew being arrested at the amusement park, but in that episode, it’s one of Johnny’s sidekicks, rather than Johnny himself, who tells the cops they should be out arresting Black rioters. In that episode, Tony comes home on his own and tells Livia that he saw Johnny’s arrest; here he’s brought home by the cops, and then runs off after an argument with his mom. And in the final season’s “Soprano Home Movies,” when a middle-aged Janice Soprano tells the famous story about Johnny Boy shooting Livia through her beehive hairdo to shut her up, it was Junior and his goomah in the car, not Dickie and Joanne, as we see when the movie amusingly shows us the argument. Chase, Konner, and Taylor all told me that the differences were intentional, as a way to illustrate the fallibility of memory. (For that matter, is Christopher the most reliable of narrators? After all, while recalling the events that happened in between the movie’s two eras, he says “Neil Young gave that speech from the moon.”)
* Before “Woke Up This Morning,” the soundtrack largely avoids reusing memorable music from The Sopranos, with one exception: When Harold stops by the Silhouette, the band is covering “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” the Frank Sinatra version of which is playing in the background in the Season Two finale as Tony, Silvio, and Paulie confront Big Pussy — whose younger incarnation is notably at the club in this scene. But a number of Chase favorites from the show wind up with different songs here, including Van Morrison (whose “Astral Weeks” plays at the start of Dickie and Giuseppina’s trip down the Shore) and the Rolling Stones (whose “Sway” plays as Tony and Artie bike over to Holsten’s at the end of the 1967 section).
* Chase loves Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut, the 1996 independent film Trees Lounge, so much that he hired its casting directors to help him cast The Sopranos, and later hired Buscemi to both direct and act on the show. The ice cream truck sequence is almost certainly a wink at Trees Lounge, where Buscemi’s character was also attacked while driving an ice cream truck (albeit for very different reasons than Tony’s victim here).
* Finally, when Johnny Boy and Livia move out to the suburbs in the 1971 scenes, it is not to the house in Verona where we see Livia residing on the show. I asked production designer Bob Shaw about this, and he said everyone decided that Livia would have moved around a bit in her later years, either before or after Johnny died in the mid-Eighties.
Alan Sepinwall is Rolling Stone‘s chief TV critic and co-author of The Sopranos Sessions.