It’s certainly fair to say that David Chase taking on a prequel movie for one of the most beloved TV shows, HBO’s The Sopranos, was a risk, but The Many Saints of Newark (released in theatres on Friday, Oct. 1) takes us back to the storytelling fans have been missing since the show ended in 2007.
Director Alan Taylor, who directed several episodes of The Sopranos before working on another famed series, Game of Thrones, and blockbuster feature film hits like Thor: The Dark World, describes The Many Saints of Newark as a “grown up story” that’s rare to see, on the big screen in particular, these days.
“Because it's David Chase, it's wrapped in the genre of gangsterism, there's tons of humour, there's lots of violence,...but it is asking some hard questions and wrestling with real psychology,” Taylor explained. “I was so grateful to read a script and think, boy I get a chance to make a movie that is in that language, because those things are rare these days.”
“Especially if you're going to have a decent budget from a studio, it tends to be people in capes and stuff. I'd gone off into blockbuster world, and it wasn't exactly the happiest time of my life, and this was a chance to go back to mythology and language I knew and loved, and to do it on the big screen. [It] felt like a great way to wrap my TV and my movie life into one, so it meant a lot to me.”
The Many Saints of Newark is largely focused on understanding who Dickie Moltisanti is, played by Alessandro Nivola, the father of Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli in the TV series The Sopranos) and uncle of Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini in the movie, James Gandolfini in the series).
While Dickie is running his numbers operation, we see the development of the relationship he has with his nephew Tony, and the strained relationship with his father “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who, at the outset of the movie, arrives back in Newark with his new, young, Italian wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi).
Ray Liotta, known for his iconic work in the gangster film Goodfellas, echoed The Many Saints of Newark director’s comments about this type of storytelling being more rarely seen in movies.
“First, you want [the audience] to be entertained, that they feel that they got their money's worth,” Liotta told Yahoo Canada.
“If this does well, then there will be more movies like this that people will take a chance with. It’s getting rarer and rarer, getting to do movies like this.”
The 1967 Newark riots
The Many Saints of Newark is set around the 1967 Newark riots, which started after Black cab driver John Smith was beaten by white police officers. Crowds began to assemble, resulting in days of unrest, leaving 26 dead. This was just one of over 100 riots that took place across the U.S. in the summer of 1967 in response to the racism, discrimination and police violence across the country.
Throughout the film, Dickie’s operative, numbers runner Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), starts resenting Dickie and his fellow, overtly racist, Italian American cohorts leading organized crime efforts in Newark, wanting to run his own operation.
This marks the first Black major gangster character in The Sopranos world, with an incredibly captivating performance from Odom Jr., but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the talented actor take on a role in this time period. He actually filmed The Many Saints of Newark before taking on the role of Sam Cooke in Regina King’s One Night in Miami…, set in 1964, which was released last year.
“When you're lucky enough to work with these kinds of professionals, it's the closest thing you can get to time travel,” he told Yahoo Canada.
“If anything, my work with Alan and this cast and on the script helped me once I went to Sam Cooke. So I'm sure it influenced [me], being lucky enough to go from one piece of great writing to another piece, was fantastic.”
Critics 'missed the point'
When The Sopranos was originally on television, there was certainly some pushback from some members of the public on the series perpetuating a stereotype that all Italian Americans are mobsters.
Looking back, Chase told Yahoo Canada that he always led his storytelling with his own personal experiences, growing up in New Jersey, in an Italian American family.
“We tried to be as authentic as possible, but everything,...came from my personal experience,” he said. “Very much so.”
“The Italian Americans who complained about it. I just didn't care, they missed the point.”
That commitment to authenticity is also seen in his casting of Michela De Rossi as Giuseppina, whose personal journey being a part of the film mirrored that of her character, coming to the U.S. for the first time.
“I couldn’t have taken 50 days of someone murdering the Italian accent,” Chase said about knowing he wanted to cast an Italian actor in the role.
De Rossi even went so far as to learn a Neapolitan accent to make the role more authentic, opposed to her natural Roman Italian accent.
“I tried to put my experience in the character and it helped me, for sure, to play her,” De Rossi told Yahoo Canada. “My first time out of Europe, my first time in America, acting in English.”
Liotta, her co-star, sang her praises for being such a talented actor, who made the story “deep and meaningful."
“I trusted him, since the first minute that I met him,” De Rossi said about Liotta. “I felt really comfortable acting with him.”
While De Rossi is certainly an actor to watch, it's her emotional performance depicting a woman living in a new country, in a community filled with misogyny, but still being vocal about her commitment to starting a legitimate business of her own, that's most reflective of the "American dream," more specifically, the fallacy of the American dream.