Newark, NJ

A Commentary on The Sopranos Prequel (No Spoilers)

Phil Rossi
Promotional PosterNew Line Cinema/HBO

“We are all broken and full of cracks. That’s how the light gets in.” ― Leonard Cohen

Leave it to the brain trust of David Chase and his fingerprints tackling the gangster genre. The Many Saints of Newark is fun, over-the-top, and yet original. The movie also pays tribute to its ever-popular HBO series through characters and storylines. There’s even a plucked and reworked flashback scene (no spoilers here — one needs to view the film to find this out).

As a Sopranos fan, I thoroughly enjoyed the Many Saints of Newark — as both a stand-alone gangster film and a prequel to the original series. The characterizations, New Jersey feel, and backdrop of the Newark Riots of 1967 add up to an enjoyable period piece.

The performances, camera work, and soundtrack all streamline through the narrative. Joining this is the ensemble of subplots, locations, and current events of the day — just like the episodic series — and it works. All of it. The violent, perverse, and dysfunctional makeup of the gangsters are all on display. Whether it’s the strictly business side of things or the daily and domestic struggles in their personal lives.

What I like and admire about David Chase, is his uncanny ability to push the buttons and head for the edges. And despite the moments of going over the falls, he fails to leave me hanging as an audience member. I never feel his story hooks are jolting for the sake of shock value.

Most gangster films are Scorsese and Goodfellas wannabes. Of course, there’s an obvious Scorsese influence, but as a homage rather than a ripoff. Despite its history as a TV series, this is new ground and territory. The game changes when one decides to make a mob movie for theatrical release.

Scorsese and Coppola remain the Godfathers of the genre — no pun intended. This is the bar. Through this prism and context is where all mob movies are judged and ranked. Not if they’re better, but if they’re in the conversation. If they’re any good, how good and close to the holy grail? As a stand-alone film, The Many Saints of Newark delivers and holds its own.

I’m not suggesting that The Many Saints of Newark eclipses this sacred ground. Will it become a classic, middle of the pack, or just another forgetful film? I’d rather not go there, and just enjoy the movie, its process, and its own history for what it is. As a fan of The Sopranos, I’m grateful it’s here and prefer to savor the film on its own merit.

The movie also plays out at times like an urban western, which the better and deeper crime films all do to some degree. That said, the film does well, claiming its own turf so to speak.

As a dramatist, Chase’s bursts of violence do shock the system. These are the actions, decisions, and impulses derived from his characters. Uneven, fractured, and dark, spawned from the hearths of demonic souls. Greed, narcissism, and ego, to name a few, fuel their motivations, spurring them on.

When one steps back from these vulgarities, you can’t help thinking, As psychotic as that was, it makes sense. That’s how these people function. This is their realm.

Spurts of violence, dark humor, and snap judgment. Nuances that play out and seem unscripted. Again, from the core of the characters themselves. True to the genre and story world of The Sopranos, or in this case, the Sopranos story tree.

The remaining balance and loose ends hang in the melodramatic. Part of television narratives, but eye-rolling in the cinema, despite the similar, familiar, and crossover audience.

Melodrama is expected and welcome in a TV series. In cinema, not so much, if at all. In cinema, the substance in lieu of melodrama is where the pros break from the amateurs. The cheap and flimsy plot device is no match for the artisan’s fleshed-out story arcs.

Again, Chase does his best — to push the envelope. Taking chances with his craft, characters, and story world. I do think he succeeds. However, it’s in these moments where the film could lose ground with critics and audience members alike.

Impulsive, provocative, and vulgar. Over-the-top and risky. All of the gears that propelled a groundbreaking and classic TV series are present in the film. Far from a groundbreaking movie in its own right, I’d rather not punish the filmmakers for falling short. As a fan of the TV series, I choose to roll with it. Others may disagree.

For those unaware of the series just looking for a mob movie, I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. Matter-of-fact, I believe they’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark along with being entertained and satisfied. There’s enough mob stuff — the turf wars, character studies, and violence to provide that audience with a fresh take, instead of a seen that, been there let down.

The holy trinity of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Goodfellas, are where every gangster film meets its moment of truth. How close they get to this sacred ground — the Mt. Rushmore of mob movies is how they are judged and remembered. As for The Many Saints of Newark, where it settles in the long run and pantheon of gangster flicks, we’ll see.

A new buzz is surrounding the future of the franchise. There might in fact be another Soprano's chapter in the works. As guarded and protective as David Chase is to the brand, there are rumblings of another foray.

As of this writing, a projected miniseries could be in the works. A timeline bridging the gap between the end of The Many Saints of Newark and the beginning of The Sopranos television show. How the young Tony Soprano enters the mob, gets his button, and climbs the ranks — all en route to caporegime, the New Jersey suburbs, and Dr. Melfi’s couch.

Of course, David Chase remains mum and coy. Early indications are that it is being discussed and seriously considered. Chase’s inner circle of writers and producers is pushing for it.

A groundbreaking TV series, a major motion picture, while wrapping it all up in a miniseries seems like the perfect trilogy for this cultural and pop sensation. As a fan, I’d love to see this. Great idea, and as always, it’s all up to you, Mr. Chase. By all means, please make it happen!

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Phil is a blogger interested in sports, culture, politics, and the art scene.

Hackensack, NJ

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