The gold standard of movies that serve as prequels for TV series is David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.” In that feature, from 1992, Lynch righted the wrongs of his two-season series—namely, that he’d directed only six of the thirty episodes.
He directed “Fire Walk with Me,” and it got widely and wrongly panned at the time of its release precisely because Lynch treated with radical subjectivity the same material that had been handled more conventionally in the TV series. He did more than expand its story; he expanded its imaginative spectrum.
Fans of The Sopranos looking to The Many Saints of Newark for some kind of final resolution may be disappointed.
David Chase, creator of the show and movie, has long rebuffed interviewers’ attempts to get him to clarify the series’ enigmatic ending, even as longtime fans and new generations of viewers continue to argue over it.
The HBO drama is such a rich text that lines and scenes linger in the mind decades after you finish watching it, along with the show’s final earworm, “Don’t Stop Believin.”
Chase co-wrote the film’s script with Lawrence Konner and delegated the direction to Alan Taylor, a TV veteran who’d worked on “The Sopranos,” and it shows: far from finding a new way to approach a familiar story, “The Many Saints of Newark” (which opens Friday in theatres and on HBO Max) is more of the series’ same jigsaw-puzzle dramatics, with scenes that do little but drop in information trimmed to fit.
Chase made an end-run around those pleas for answers about Tony Soprano’s fate by creating The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel, now streaming on HBO, set in the late 1960s and early 70s. The original series marinated in nostalgia for the good old pre-RICO days when gangsters had the run of the town. There were frequent references throughout the show’s six seasons to legendary deceased figures like Christopher’s dad, Dickie Moltisanti, as well as to Tony’s own father, Johnny Soprano. Molitsanti becomes the focus of The Many Saints of Newark, accompanied by younger versions of the folks we came to know in The Sopranos— Junior, Janice, Livia, Silvio, Paulie, Pussy, and of course Tony.
Below is a spoiler-filled look at a handful of the references and callbacks in the film that enhance (or more likely complicate) our sense of the environment that created Tony Soprano, with a little help from Chase himself.
THE AMUSEMENT PARK: The Sopranos writers wove flashbacks into the very fabric of the original series. They often occurred as a result of Tony’s therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, who is pushing him to get to the root of his anxiety and panic attacks.“You said you liked the History Channel,” Melfi says to Tony in the first season episode “Down Neck.” “He who doesn’t understand history is doomed to repeat it.”
In the course of that original episode, Tony flashes back to a childhood memory of the amusement park, where he discovered “my father wasn’t like other fathers.” After taking the bus and being chased by a trio of young Black boys (one of whom was played by a very young Michael B. Jordan), young Tony sees his dad getting arrested at the amusement park, and one of his fellow gangsters getting shot. In Many Saints, the scene is remixed, and placed in the historical context of the 1967 Newark riots, when residents of a Newark public housing development rose up after police officers beat up a Black taxi driver.
Where the original scene directly followed Tony’s point of view, the movie version feels more omniscient. “I wanted to link two stories,” David Chase told my V.F. colleague Matthew Lynch, who interviewed him about the film. “These were actual events, the riots were real. That’s what was going on in his life.” Dickie Moltisanti and other crime family members use the widespread fires and looting in town as cover for their own illicit activities.
THE MISERY OF LIVIA SOPRANO: In the original series, the elderly Livia (played by the late Nancy Marchand) is a curmudgeon steeped in so much bitterness that she seems like a blight on Tony’s existence rather than a comfort. When she dies in season three, Carmela bursts out with an anti-eulogy at her wake, describing her as “a woman that we all know was terribly dysfunctional, who spread no cheer. At all.” Tony once remembered her in flashback, surrounded by dirty dishes and a crying baby, menacing him with meat-carving implements. “I could stick this fork in your eye!”
Many Saints offers more detail about the youthful Livia. She’s played by the wonderful Vera Farmigia, who (in a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to Freud) bears more than a slight resemblance here to Edie Falco. The younger Livia is salty as ever——she can be heard spouting her trademark mocking line, “Oh poor you!”— but also a victim of her husband’s relentlessly violent and nasty behavior.
ADVENTURES IN THERAPY: Livia is already troubled enough in the yesteryear of Many Saints that her doctor wants to prescribe her the antidepressant Elavil, but she rejects it. “I’m not a drug addict!” she sneers. Tony pores over the Elavil pamphlet with great interest and even schemes with Dickie Moltisanti to get his suffering mother to take it: “It could make her happy.” Perhaps this is the moment that Tony—who, many years later, will take Prozac—develops the hope that psychology and psychopharmacology can save him?
Meanwhile, Tony has his own taste of therapy when he is called in to talk to the school’s guidance counselor after he’s caught cheating. She asks about his parents, and he confides in her about one of the best memories of his life: the night Livia snuggled him in bed and read to him. She briefly tries to be sweet to Tony, but as in The Sopranos, their time together inevitably disintegrates into an altercation.
Livia just can’t seem to think positively about her son. In Many Saints, she mocks his desire to become a football player, opining, “He should go to work in my cousin Frank in the patio furniture business”—a callback to season one’s “Down Neck” scene in which Tony tells Dr. Melfi, “Sometimes I think about what life would’ve been like… if my father hadn’t gotten mixed up in what he got mixed up in. How life would’ve been different. Maybe I’d be selling patio furniture in San Diego.”
THE BEEHIVE SHOT: In the season six episode “Home Movies,” during a drunken game of Monopoly, Janice told Carmela and Bobby Baccala a family story: Their parents were driving back from Manhattan after an evening out at a nightclub with Uncle Junior and his goomar. Livia was jabbering at Johnny while he was driving, until he got so aggravated he whipped out his gun and aimed a shot right through her beehive hairdo. In Many Saints, we finally get to see the scene play out. It’s precipitated by a conversation about Tony’s recent mischievous adventures (stealing an ice cream truck) and his future. “You lead by example, he’ll make the right decision,” Dickie Moltisanti assures Johnny. “This kid’s got what it takes….If my Christopher grew up to be like Tony, I’d be goddamned proud.”
THE GHOST OF CHRISTOPHER MOLTISANTI: Michael Imperioli makes an invisible cameo as the movie’s narrator, speaking from beyond the grave about the events that led to his death at Tony’s hands. In the timeframe of the movie, he is a newborn baby, and his proud father Dickie has high hopes for his son. Dickie has no way of knowing that Chris will follow in his footsteps as a seemingly thoughtful but brutal killer who, like his dad, will dispatch someone very close to him—or that Chris will die at Tony’s hands. In a bit of foreshadowing, Many Saints features a scene in which a young Tony holds infant Chris for the first time, and the baby wails. “It’s like I scare him or something,” Tony says. An older guest at the party later warns, “Some babies when they come into the world know things from the other side.”
FALLING DOWN WITH UNCLE JUNIOR: Uncle Junior’s simmering rage and resentment snaked through The Sopranos from the very first episode. He constantly rankled at Tony’s authority and schemed to whack him, and took every opportunity to lash out at anyone who showed him disrespect. (When Junior broke up with his goomar early in the series because she revealed his affinity for oral sex, he hit her in the face with a pie.) That crankiness and hunger for respect is already apparent in young Junior (played perfectly by Corey Stoll) in Many Saints. So is his propensity for physical injury. Here, Young Junior slips on steps in the rain and injures his back. And just as is in the season two episode “Do Not Resuscitate” when he falls in the bathroom, he screams his furious catchphrase: “Your sister’s cunt!”
LAST STAND AT HOLSTEN’S: David Chase has resisted requests to further clarify the final Sopranos scene set in Holsten’s, the diner in which the family is last seen. And yet Many Saints returns again to Holsten’s, with a final image of young Tony standing in the doorway, just a minute before the theme song for the series kicks in.
Chase told VF’s Matthew Lynch that the locations “had to come from somewhere in their past. The real Holsten’s is in Bloomfield [New Jersey]. We had to go there a lot in the beginning, back when we were doing the series. We were looking for a place like that and that was the only one left with candy,” and the old-school feel to it.
Alan Taylor, the movie’s director (and a regular on the original series) has been much more forthcoming about the show’s ending, telling The Hollywood Reporter that in his mind, Tony is murdered in Holsten’s before the screen goes black. The new movie intentionally references a fan theory when teenage Tony mentions that he wouldn’t want to die being shot in the back. As Bobby Bacala says in a foreshadowing line in season six, “In our line of work, it’s always out there. You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?”
The movie’s incidents don’t breathe the air of any world. They’re conjured out of narrow allusions to broad historical facts and a soundtrack filled with emblematic pop music and nostalgia-stoking commercials. As for the tensions and rigors of Mob life, they go peculiarly unexplored as well. In Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” the need to dispose of blood-stained clothing, after a contract killing, becomes a crucial practicality, and also a silently howling abyss of horror, whereas here the physical and emotional repercussions of bloody murder are nowhere suggested. Hoisting and dragging a massive corpse alone? No problem. Teen-agers disposing of a hijacked truck? Effortless and unquestioned. Gunshots among family members? No consequences. There is one clever plot twist, arising from a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of events, which proves to play a major role in Tony’s criminal destiny, but it is undermined by an earnestness, a lack of humor, a sense of hard-nosed realism that transforms the entire movie into a sort of just-so story. Rather than knowingly deflating its own fantastic hyperbole with a wink, “The Many Saints of Newark” pompously sells itself as a serious vision of history and psychology. The joke is on us.