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Saints, sinners and Sopranos
Creative Sensemaker

Saints, sinners and Sopranos

Thursday 23 September 2021

The movie prequel to the legendary mafia television series is a worthy addition to its mythology – and much more than the tale of what made Tony Soprano the man he became


Not long after James Gandolfini’s sudden death from a heart attack in 2013, HBO – the cable channel that had propelled the actor to global stardom in The Sopranos – gathered the show’s cast and crew to record a tribute to the man who had mesmerised viewers as New Jersey mafia boss Tony Soprano. In an especially poignant moment towards the end of the documentary, his teenage son, Michael, said earnestly that he “taught me everything I need to know to be a great man. I just want to make sure I make him proud.”

James Gandolfini with Marcy Gandolfini and son Michael, 2007

Gandolfini Jr could hardly have predicted that, eight years later, he would be doing just that in a prequel movie – and one in which he himself played the young Tony. This audacious casting might have gone horribly wrong, a terrible collision of life and art reminiscent of the performance of Sofia Coppola – director Frances Ford Coppola’s daughter – as Michael Corleone’s beloved child, Mary, in The Godfather Part III (1990). 

In fact, Gandolfini’s presence in The Many Saints of Newark (cinemas, general release) turns out to be a master-stroke at the heart of a magnificent movie. Now aged 22, he is utterly convincing as the young Tony, playing the fool with his friends, worried about losing his place on the school football team, and trying to impress a blonde girl called Carmela (who, of course, goes on to be his wife in the six-season show, in a towering performance by Edie Falco). 

The physical resemblance between the two Gandolfinis is striking enough, but the deal is sealed by the extent to which the son, like his father, communicates an unsettling combination of innocence and (in this case, still-germinal) capacity for violence. Chills will run down your spine when the camera lingers on his hardening features and the theme tune to the series – ‘Woke Up This Morning’ by Alabama 3 – strikes up, clear connective tissue with all that is to come. 

Michael Gandolfini as teenage Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti

Yet the movie does not confine itself to, or even hinge upon, Tony’s backstory. It is 14 years since the show ended with one of the most cryptic and open-ended finales in the history of television, to the strains of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ – an enigma that is furiously discussed to this day. But it is not part of the film’s mission to provide pat answers to that or any of the show’s other legendary questions (what did happen to the Russian in Season Three?).

Co-written by David Chase, creator and showrunner of the original series, and directed by Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark is, at heart, the story of Dickie Moltisanti, Tony’s beloved mentor, and a senior member of the DiMeo crime family. He is also father to Christoper Moltisanti, an infant in the movie, who will go on to be Tony’s own protégé in the series – and be killed by him in Season Six. In a nod to Sunset Boulevard (1950), the movie is narrated by the ghost of Christoper (Michael Imperioli), who reflects ruefully that the adult Tony “strangled me to death” and then “gave my wife and kids his pocket change”.

Perfectly-tailored, charming and ruthless, Dickie – Alessandro Nivola in the best performance of his career – incarnates both the tantalising promise of life in the mob and the moral perdition that is its ultimate reward. 

When his father (Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti) is killed, he loses no time in installing his stepmother, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), in an apartment as his mistress (or goomah). He thinks nothing of sudden, capricious acts of brutality. Yet he fancies himself a more moral figure than his father, and, hunched and full of self pity, seeks absolution from the imprisoned Ray Liotta (you’ll have to watch the movie to see who the Goodfellas veteran plays). Pathetically, Dickie says that he just wants to “do a good deed”. Liotta, who loves jazz, is happy to receive his gift of Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool, but remains unimpressed by Dickie’s performative contrition. He knows irredeemable appetite when he sees it. “It’s the wanting,” as he observes.

Joey Coco Diaz as Buddha and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti

In its 86 episodes, the series rarely addressed the question of race – except in the gruesome prejudice of its main characters (Tony’s bigoted denunciation of his daughter Meadow’s mixed-race boyfriend, Noah, in Season Three is still one of the show’s most shocking moments). In contrast, the movie’s first half pivots around the Newark race riots of 1967 – unfolding to the soundtrack of Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry – the rise of a Black crime syndicate in the city under Harold McBrayer, compellingly played by Leslie Odom Jr, and the new political culture of Black Power. The scenes of the uprising have a powerful contemporary resonance, though they were filmed in 2019, long before George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Harold McBrayer and Germar Terrell Gardner as Cyril

Chase has claimed that The Many Saints is “very much a standalone movie”. This is technically true, in the sense that it can be enjoyed on its merits as a first-rank mob film by someone who has not seen a single episode of The Sopranos. The movie has its own perfectly sustainable internal logic, narrative arc and sense of character. (If you haven’t seen the original series you have the treat of a viewing lifetime in store – available on Now TV or Sky. As an essential guide to the show’s mythology and meaning, try The Sopranos Sessions by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall.)

In reality, however, Chase is being spectacularly disingenuous – on two counts. First, the movie bristles with references to the show, some playful, others more profound. We are back in Satriale’s Pork Store, where the wise guys tell tall tales about “Frank and Dino”. There is a scene – too good to spoil – in which the young Tony finds himself in Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery, famously the scene of the show’s finale where the adult Tony meets his family for dinner.

And most of our favourite characters appear at one stage or another – much younger of course: Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll); Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen); “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola); Silvio “Sal” Dante (John Magaro), Tony’s future consigliere; and – best of all – Vera Farmiga as Tony’s mother, Livia. 

There are dark premonitions, too: the baby Christopher cries when Tony tries to cuddle him, as if sensing that this amiable young teenager will one day be his executioner. In another scene, Tony opens up to a school counsellor, in a clear foreshadowing of the relationship between his adult self and the psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) – an ongoing dialogue that is at the heart of the television show. Even as a schoolboy, Tony is sufficiently attuned to the problems of mental health to ask Dickie to get hold of a particular medication for his mother. His reward, later in life, will be the elderly Livia’s complicity in attempts to kill her own son.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo

Second, The Many Saints of Newark is a profoundly knowing film – studded with allusions to the rich history of American gangster movies. Just as the crew in the series loved Sal’s impersonations of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy, so the characters in the film love watching Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948). The Many Saints owes much to Goodfellas, and not only because of Liotta’s brooding presence. A row about the Moorish bloodline in Sicily alludes to Christopher Walken’s famous scene with Dennis Hopper in True Romance (1993) – a movie in which, by coincidence, Gandolfini Sr has his own memorable cameo. There is a gruelling torture sequence lifted almost directly from Casino (1995). This is a film for the obsessive, as well as the general viewer.

Where The Many Saints most conspicuously shares DNA with The Sopranos is in its moral fabric – or absence thereof. Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker writer, was, I think, correct in her observation that Chase was “a true iconoclast [in the original series], a prophet of disgust… To be a fan, we needed to welcome Tony Soprano again and again into our homes, like a vampire or a therapy patient. Chase gave that choice a terrible weight.” 

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in the therapist’s chair

While Coppola and Scorsese have never been afraid to import religious metaphor to their accounts of the mafia, Chase is an unapologetic existentialist. “All I know is the end is coming for all of us,” he wrote in 2016. And, in such a universe, cruelty and sentimentality are separated by the thinnest of partitions. One moment the characters are celebrating a family dinner. The next they are engaging in treachery, murder and casual violence. Exasperated by Livia in the car, Tony’s father, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), thinks nothing of firing a bullet past her ear, leaving her headscarf smoking. “Don’t give me that look!” he says, as if her shock is unreasonable.

In the end, Dickie’s tragedy, and one that he bequeaths to Tony, is that, for these men, the longing for redemption is phoney. For all his lachrymose claims that he wants to be a better man, he wants everything else much more. The trick, as he tells Tony while persuading him to accept stolen hi-fi equipment, is to learn the habit of self-deception.

“You take the speakers, right – at the same time, you say to yourself, ‘This is the last time I’m ever going to steal something’”, Dickie says. “It’s that simple.” This has always been Chase’s bleak message: ultimately, human nature conspires against closure, atonement, tidy endings. The real punishment is not to be thwarted, but to be free to persist. As the song says: it goes on and on, and on, and on.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Watch

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (selected cinemas, 29 September) 

“If you doubt reality, drop tungsten on your foot.” So says the late Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) in this wonderful film directed by Ric Burns. As a neurologist, writer and public intellectual, Sacks was one of the most passionate and effective champions of science of the last half century – his message more important than ever in an age bombarded by pseudo-science, in which (for instance) asserting the scientific reality of biological sex can now wreck an academic or political career. Sacks’s evolution from the hospital ward to the public stage is engagingly told – the breakthrough being the story told in Awakenings (1973) of his treatment in the late Sixties of patients frozen since the 1920s epidemic of encephalitis lethargica with the experimental drug L-DOPA. The turbulence of his private life – beautifully recounted in his 2015 memoir On the Move – is part of the story, too, and one that has a happy ending. A documentary that is truly worthy of its subject. 

Foundation (Apple TV+, 24 September) 

As the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman writes in his introduction to the Folio Society’s edition of the original Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov’s great saga is “not exactly science fiction….[the] novels are about people, not gadgets”. In a future Galactic Empire, Hari Seldon, the master of “psychohistory”, presents, as Krugman puts it, “the possibility of a rigorous, mathematical social science that understands society, can predict how it changes, and can be used to shape those changes.” Since the publication of the first three Foundation books between 1951 and 1953, it has been assumed that they are unfilmable – until now, that is. The incredible potential of CGI and the rise of high-budget streaming television have converged happily to bring Asimov’s story to our screens. The initial signs are that this adaptation by Apple TV+ – starring Jared Harris as Seldon – is equal to the task; which, in turn, augurs well for Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming movie version of that other supposedly unfilmable sci-fi masterpiece: Frank Herbert’s Dune (22 October), which I’ll be discussing with Krugman at a ThinkIn on Monday 25 October. We’d love to see you there.

Columbia Noir #4 (Indicator Limited Edition Blu-ray box set, 27 September)

The fourth instalment of Indicator’s magnificent film noir compilations is a treat both for aficionados of the genre and those exploring its majesty for the first time. This set, like its predecessors, brings together six Columbia movies – Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), Walk East on Beacon! (1952), Pushover (1954), A Bullet is Waiting (1954), Chicago Syndicate (1955), and The Brothers Rico (1957) – and puts them into context, with a fantastic range of extras including commentaries by cineastes as distinguished as Martin Scorsese. If you thought that film noir was just a matter of chiaroscuro lighting, think again: these collections offer a pathway through the postwar American psyche – its social and political pathologies, dreams and nightmares.

Read

Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People On Earth – Wole Soyinka (Bloomsbury Circus, 28 September)

It is almost half a century since Wole Soyinka last published a novel (Season of Anomy, 1972), and his return to the form, at the age of 87, is, by any standards, a significant literary event. As Ben Okri wrote in 1986, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author is “a Renaissance man, firmly rooted in Africa, at home in the world”: frequently compared to Camus and Joyce, but also immersed in legends of the African deities (especially Ogun, the Yoruba god of war and creativity). The novel is a twisty, wistful and sharply satirical tale of elite corruption seen through the eyes of Doctor Menka, who identifies a horrific trade in body parts at his hospital. A lifetime of creativity, activism and irony is embedded in these marvellous pages.

Peril – Bob Woodward and Robert Costa (Simon & Schuster)

What must it be like to be Bob Woodward? Half of the journalistic duo that brought down Richard Nixon in 1974 with their legendary Watergate stories in the Washington Post, now aged 78 – and publishing his third book on Donald Trump’s presidency which, in its innate autocracy and challenge to the US constitution, easily outstripped anything that Nixon ever did. Peril, co-authored with Woodward’s Post colleague Robert Costa, is a pacy read, full of revelations great and small (notably, that General Mark A. Milley called his Chinese counterpart after the 6 January invasion of the Capitol to reassure him that the American government was stable and that – in spite of Trump’s derangement – the US military would prevent him from any reckless action on the international stage). In particular, the lengths to which Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, was prepared to go to declare the 2020 presidential election invalid take the breath away. This is very much a first draft of history. But it is salutary to be reminded that, less than nine months ago, the most powerful nation on earth was the scene of a violent attempted coup – the product of forces that, to this day, remain a clear and present danger to the American republic.

The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality – Kathryn Paige Harden (Princeton University Press)

As professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, Kathryn Paige Harden has been waging a noble battle to liberate genetic science from its reactionary connotations, and especially the foul practice of eugenics. Her point, pithily made in this important book, is that knowledge of genetics is essential to any progressive politics and can be harnessed to advance the cause of equality. “A society that protects – nay, loves – its most vulnerable with its choices,” she writes, “must be able to see who is most vulnerable so that it can see how its choices affect them.” The pandemic, she concludes, has shown beyond doubt that this is so, and should be a cross-spectrum lesson in this respect to future policy-makers.

Listen

MONTERO – Lil Nas X

Best known for his huge country-rap hit, ‘Old Town Road’ (2019) the longest-running Number 1 in the history of the Billboard charts – Lil Nas X (AKA Montero Lamar Hill) has weathered both homophobia and claims that he is no more than a novelty artist to deliver this fine debut album. Kanye West lends his producing talent to ‘Industry Baby’, while ‘Scoop’ features Doja Cat and ‘One of Me’ recruits Elton John’s piano-playing. Nas’ lyrics are both poignant (“I know that you want to cry/ But there’s much more to life than dying”) and ferociously honest about his own path to fame (“You’s a meme, you’s a joke, been a gimmick from the go”). A major talent, from whom we can expect even greater things.

Freudvoll und Leidvoll – Franz Liszt, Jonas Kaufmann

Anyone lucky enough to have heard Jonas Kaufmann singing live can vouch for the agility and artistic depth of his operatic tenor. Renowned for his interpretations of Verdi, Mozart and Wagner, he now ventures into less familiar terrain with these 20 songs by Liszt, accompanied on piano by the virtuoso Helmut Deutsch. There is a profundity to their musical adventure, thanks in no small part to lyrics by (for instance) Petrarch, Goethe and Heine. The two performers’ clear affinity for one another – they are longtime collaborators and friends – translates into a spirit of creative freedom that makes this more than just another anthology for completists. At the top of his game, Kaufmann is still – very much to his credit – testing his limits.

How Beautiful Life Can Be – The Lathums (24 September)

As they embark today on a national tour, Wigan’s finest drop their eagerly anticipated debut album – and it is no disappointment. The title track sets the tone, channelling the spirit of 90s indie at its sunniest, with nods to surf music and high hopes for anthemic status. In their musical alliance, singer Alex Moore and guitarist Scott Concepion evoke early Morrissey and Marr at their most mischievous – two contrapuntal voices, driving the band on to ever greater heights. Fans of the terrific single ‘I’ll Get By’ will find much to enjoy here, rich evidence that the Lathums are about to – and deserve to – become huge.

..and finally: many thanks to Tortoise member Gregory Mulligan for his recommendation of Akram Khan’s Creature at Sadler’s Wells: “Akram Khan’s recreation of Giselle was one of the outstanding new pieces of modern ballet of the last five years. His new (Covid-delayed) creation opened this week at Sadler’s Wells. I expect it to be one of the highlights of the year. Personally, I am a patron of English National Ballet and am going on 30 September. Don’t miss it: the dancers are brilliant in almost everything they do, and Khan is one of the world’s most innovative and outstanding choreographers.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Pictures Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures, Theo Wargo/WireImage, Zeitgeist Films, AppleTV+, Home Box Office Inc, John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images, Columbia Pictures, Alastair Muir/Shutterstock, Getty Images